Facebook Fight Against Fake News Leads to Deeper Media Ties

  • Company says it will collaborate with media on product changes
  • Facebook to offer training, tools, education against hoaxes

'Pizzagate' Brings Fake News Into the Real World

Facebook Inc., struggling with its growing role as a distributor of news, is embarking on a project that includes stronger partnerships with media companies, greater support for local news and better efforts to educate users to avoid hoaxes.

The company’s Journalism Project follows a year of debate over Facebook’s role in the media -- inside the company and externally -- during which it faced questions over whether the social network is biased in the way it presents news to users and whether it propagates false information. Members of the media will be updated on the efforts, which include training for journalists and ways to promote news literacy among users, on a new Facebook Journalism Project page.

“We know that our community values sharing and discussing ideas and news, and as a part of our service, we care a great deal about making sure that a healthy news ecosystem and journalism can thrive,” the company said in a blog post.

Facebook’s relationship with the media is complicated. The industry blames the company for disrupting its business model and helping promote viral content over articles of substance. The social network, which has 1.79 billion users, has also occasionally generated criticism for deleting newsworthy items that violate its content policies, then restoring the items after protest. Questions over Facebook’s role in the media intensified in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election to the U.S. presidency, when the company was criticized for not doing more to curb the spread of misinformation on its site.

At the same time, the media relies on Facebook to distribute its stories -- even more so now that news organizations have taken to formats like live video, which Facebook introduced in April. Facebook products such as Instant Articles, which ensure stories load faster on a user’s news feed, are also popular with media companies. As part of its outreach, Facebook last week hired Campbell Brown, a former CNN host, to be head of its news partnership team.

“There are a lot of unknowns in the way that we create and produce journalism today and I think that’s because technology has changed so fast, and everyone is trying to figure this out at the same time,” said Melissa Bell, publisher at Vox, a media company. “We’re in a period of real experimentation when it comes to how we monetize, how we produce, how we distribute, how we build trust with our audience.”

Higher Priority

Facebook’s executive leadership meets in January to discuss its priorities -- this year deeper work with media was a primary topic. The company said it will work with news organizations on emerging business models, train journalists on Facebook products and tools via online courses, and visit newsrooms to discuss best practices.

The company said it wants to educate its users on what news sources to trust -- a potentially thorny issue after a controversy last year over its trending topics section, which prioritized news from certain mainstream organizations, but not some popular conservative sites. The company will work with outside organizations like the News Literacy Project and run public service ads and is open to making financial grants where necessary, Facebook said.

Facebook has worked to be a neutral platform for the news, trying to promote high-quality content without making editorial decisions. But even computer algorithms are trained by humans and have biases, said Mark Hannah, who teaches at New York University.

With the move, Facebook is acknowledging that “editorial judgment –- and the fundamentally human intelligence which supports it –- is not artificially replicable,” he said.

Faster Viewing

Dave Merrell, product manager at the Washington Post, said the publisher is working with Facebook on more visually engaging Instant Articles. He said he expects similar platforms from Apple and Google, aimed at loading mobile web pages more quickly, will also undergo design changes this year.

“2016 was the year of getting on board with these platforms,” Merrell said. “In 2017 there is going to be a lot of new features coming into these established formats.”

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