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Tailor-Made Misinformation: Social Media’s News Problem

Conservative media leaders met in Menlo Park, California, last week to speak with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg about the accusation that his company’s algorithms, constructed by liberal employees, routinely suppressed conservative news from the social media site’s “Trending Topics” feed.

The likes of Glenn Beck, Dana Dash and Tucker Carlson appeared at Facebook headquarters last week to call out liberal bias in Silicon Valley they believed to be at fault for the alleged suffocation of their outlets’ posts. After the meeting, many conservative figures lauded the company for promising to investigate and discussing concerns so openly.

Although the meeting provided fodder for a couple days of newscasts, the discussion failed to examine a larger problem with Facebook’s news distribution. A larger issue at play may be fundamentally rooted into its design.

Facebook Is The New Front Page

A study published by PEW Research Center found that younger demographics (18–29 years old) increasingly say social media is the “most helpful” source of political news.

Similar data show the same age group also consumes a large amount of their information on-the-go, via smartphones or tablet.

Numbers indicate social media has taken on a “front page” effect, breaking news to a generation constantly plugged into a global stage. It’s easy to understand the outrage some conservative media figures expressed when they read Facebook may have suffocated their news stories. In the current state of the media, social media acts as a brute force that publications depend on for web traffic (read: revenue) that they must treat with utmost tact and grave seriousness.

Last week’s debate centered on the mechanics of Facebook’s “Trending Topics” bar, located on users’ homepages, which is indubitably influential to a generation that sources its news on social media platforms. However, the discussion failed utilizing a wider perspective to see formulaic problems that handicap Facebook’s ability to accurately inform its users in whole.

A Problem Beyond ‘Trending Topics’

Facebook, like other social platforms, processes and curates information media using precise mathematical formulas that factor a user’s expressed preferences (page likes), digital clique (friends list), virtual finger prints (likes & comments) and click history. As result, these programs can weather an overwhelming tidal wave of digital media into custom-fit highlight reel personalized on a user-by-user basis.

The effect of these algorithms is amplified when users assemble their “Friends Lists.” Users subconsciously send connection requests to people whom they share ideological similarities to and reject or remove those whom they strongly disagree. This practice serves to further screen content that appears in one’s news feed.

Facebook formulas also inject posts that receive higher-than-normal levels of engagement into its users’ browsing experience.

These fundamental functions provide users insurance against missing important posts from their closest online acquaintances, and against receiving information that will disinterest them and motivate them to exit the platform. Users get everything they want to see and nothing they don’t, providing an immersive experience.

Facebook’s user experience, however, does not flatter news media and effectively suppresses information that may confront or displeasure the user. In a digital landscape where people are disproportionately shown what they want to see, they become deprived of what they need to see. Algorithms like the one Facebook uses, and voting priority systems like the one Reddit is built on, effectively bury media that does not resonate in a given digital ecosystem, creating an echo chamber effect. Real news isn’t always popular, and when information is downgraded on the merit of engagement, misinformation can receive false equivalence to real news. The formula makes Facebook a place where fake news outlets, such as National Report and Huzlers, can post inflammatory untrue stories and receive the same foothold as legitimate news outlets.

When a platform virtually spoon-feeds faulty news stories with the same utensil used to serve hard reporting, users suffer. Low-quality information hinders a user’s ability to make educated decisions offline and can separate someone from objective reality — it can affect the basis of understanding a person uses to navigate his life.

Users Need Real News, Not Algorithms

It’s important that people are receiving reputable news based in objective fact so that communities can have systematic debates that result in pragmatic solutions. I am skeptical the Facebook news feed will ever deliver this, due to its functional design. Instead, the platform’s users should seek knowledge elsewhere and let their news feeds do what they do best: Keeping them up-to-date and entertained in their personal network.

Rather than seeking information in a stream that contains numerous built-in filters, users should instead seek news directly from the springs and tributaries that pour into it. Below is a list of publications that uphold the rigorous journalistic standards of objectivity that make them sources of authority on news and news analysis.

Breaking: Objective factual reporting and widely-cited op-eds
The New York Times
The Washington Post
The Guardian
Associated Press
Buzzfeed News
Partisan Political: News from Washington
Liberal (Left)
Mother Jones
Think Progress
Conservative (Right)
Drudge Report
Fox News
Regional: What the locals are saying
This differs person-to-person, depending on location. Local news reading should include at least one of each: regional paper, news station and news blog.
*This list is not conclusive, but rather a starting point for further reading.

Don’t Shoot The Messenger

Asking Facebook to moderate what deserves to be called “real” news places an undue burden on the organization because it asks the company to behave as something that it is not. Facebook would be disingenuous to re-brand itself as a news media outlet, since editorial discretion counters the open speech platform that allows the site to function as a social platform. Editorial decisions should be left to publication boards with demonstrated reputations for responsibility and ethics in journalism.

Current conversation about Facebook’s function in news distribution missed the opportunity for a larger discussion about the problems users necessarily face when depending on the platform as a primary source of news information. It is foolish to suggest companies not embrace Facebook’s digital platform in the modernization of their publications, but it is equally foolish to debate under the guise that Facebook, by design, provides users with a comprehensive and objective news feed to begin with.