Facebook is rethinking its approach to news, and Monday the company made its clearest statement yet on where that process is heading. “We are, for the first time in the history of Facebook, taking a step to try to define what quality news looks like and give that a boost,” Facebook’s head of news partnerships Campbell Brown said in an interview at Recode’s Code Media conference.
But while its goal is clear, the path Facebook is taking won’t necessarily get it there. As Brown and Facebook News Feed head Adam Mosseri made clear during their talk, the company is going to emphasize three factors — local, informative, and trusted news sources — but these metrics don’t seem sufficient to effectively determine what quality news is on their own.
Emphasizing these factors, which Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg outlined in a recent post, does amount to a major departure for Facebook. The company has a long history of downplaying its role in making editorial decisions about news content. But as Facebook tries to get away from the sensationalized, fake, and vapid news that’s plagued its platform, it’s still taking a light, indirect approach that isn’t likely to solve its problems.
Facebook’s plan to rely on a user survey to help it figure out what “trustworthy” content it will promote, for instance, won’t assuredly lead to it promoting more quality content. The company announced plans to survey a wide array of Facebook users about their familiarity and trust level with publishers, and it will use feedback gathered in the survey to promote news from publications that readers broadly trust. But the prospect that this will boost only quality news is questionable, since people using Facebook have shown they widely trust fake news — as evidenced by the run-up to the 2016 election when viral fake news stories outperformed real news stories.
Local news is also not assuredly quality news. A recent test of Facebook’s new local content module in Olympia, Washington, for instance, showed that the platform’s algorithms included a local police blotter blog in its news section. This blog, while certainly local, only meets the standard of quality news if you think publishing posts off a police scanner is even news at all.
And Facebook has still not figured out its stance on what informative content is. One of Facebook’s goals, Brown said, is “to try to define better what that means so that we capture news organizations like Recode or Vox that may not have the big brand that a broadly trusted publisher would,” she said. On all three, Brown added, “How this manifests in the coming months is not totally clear to us right now."
Each of these three factors seem to be Facebook’s way of building proxies for what quality news should be, without placing itself in a position to make clear judgment calls itself. And indeed, in a statement to BuzzFeed News, Brown seemed to make this evident. “People and publishers on Facebook have been clear they prefer quality news; and our work to ensure broadly trusted sources, more informative sources, and local sources are finding distribution is a strong step toward delivering on that promise,” she said.
Relying on these factors, instead of making its own calls, leaves Facebook in the position of saying it wants quality while potentially optimizing toward something else.