How Facebook’s Algorithm Influences Your News

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[AN EDITORIAL]

With the addition of a news algorithm to its online repertoire, Facebook shifts itself into a new role—that of media gateway. With the popularity of the social media site with Millennials and Gen-Xers, their status as a news source raises questions about the direction of new media and news media. A Dam with Many Floodgates Traditionally, media sources have always … Read More »

With the addition of a news algorithm to its online repertoire, Facebook shifts itself into a new role—that of media gateway. With the popularity of the social media site with Millennials and Gen-Xers, their status as a news source raises questions about the direction of new media and news media.

A Dam with Many Floodgates

Traditionally, media sources have always acted as their own monitors and influences. Editors, journalists, and ultimately, newspaper owners, were the primary filters to the influential events around our world, like a dam channeling the flood of news through different channels. Whatever they deemed newsworthy–either with regards to their personal conception of importance or reader relevance—we would receive. And typically, our news was filtered through many different sources, each with seasoned veterans of the information trade held to the vaunted inverted pyramid and the principles of journalistic integrity. Reporters’ articles were compiled into a group of stories, edited for content and poof! A newspaper would arrive on your doorstep for you to explore back to front or section by section.

Picking Fish from the River

Although loosely categorized as newspapers or blogs, modern online news functions somewhat differently. Eschewing the book of stories approach, the online equivalent of newspapers function like picking fish out of a river of information. Editors cull articles from journalists, popular (and hopefully well sourced) bloggers, as well as traditional news sources like the Associated Press and Reuters. Modern editors, however, working with a plethora of sources will poke and prod at the internet with their mice until they shake out shockingly underreported news, fresh or spectacular stories, or topics climbing the mighty jagged trending arrow.

What makes Facebook’s news feed different than its modern media counterparts is that it’s not just the algorithm controlling the news, but you and your friends. While this sounds more egalitarian, especially as the number of corporate gatekeepers dwindles, that isn’t exactly the case. In more naïve eras, we trusted that journalistic ethics would prevail and newspaper owners were content to sit back and leave the news alone as long as the revenue poured in. Now, we know this is not true, as firms like Disney create anti-embarrassment clauses before funding media projects. With so few media sources in the hands of so few people, Facebook’s news algorithm sounds like a wonderfully democratic idea. Yet this is a fairytale as well.

Diverting the Flow and Handing You the Fish

With the Facebook news algorithm in charge, we’re still not getting a democratically elected news story. Essentially, our news feed is the winner of a popularity contest—Facebook controls the river’s direction and hands you whatever fish it thinks you want or wants you to try anyway. True, the stories that reach you are tailored to meet your personality profile, much like the ads which started appearing in recent years. But the news which reaches you will also filter through your friends’ interests and, more importantly, the buzz-worthy trending stories of the day, hour, or minute according to Facebook. So if Iran tries to build a nuclear reactor or the city of Baltimore riots, you might see the story. But if Kim Kardasian’s ass pics or “baby kitten playing with a ball of string” are trending, that’s what will pop up on your page.

Why It Matters Who Controls the Flood?

Is this a bad thing? Well, it depends upon how you look at it? News coverage personalized to your tastes may weed out stories that don’t interest you, but it also could weed out any story Facebook isn’t interested in. And that’s where it gets dicey. If you’re a Millennial—and there’s a good possibility you are if you’re reading this article—you (maybe not you specifically) receive over half of your news from Facebook, according to a recent Pew study. The next largest web-savvy demographic, Gen X, also gets roughly half of their news from Facebook. That’s a lot of power to put in the hands of one corporate entity. And this particular organization has already been accused of lacking a diverse spectrum of political opinion on their newsfeed (did you see Ferguson or the ice bucket challenge? That’s what I thought.).

Now Here’s the Catch

While concerns over who controls the flow of information aren’t exactly new (have you read 1984?), net neutrality is one of the most contentious and important issues of the Information Age. A lack of neutrality will ultimately determine the amount of freedom users have online—the digital frontier, so to speak. It will also define the kind of access browsers will have to the web, including how much money we’ll pay to access the web, how many and which types of service providers can operate on the web, how much we can download or upload, and most importantly, the limits of our freedom of expression online.

Perhaps Facebook’s newsfeed algorithm won’t bring about the downfall of the Web or destroy freedom of speech, but it does place a remarkable amount of power in the hands of one company. Diversity in culture, as in news sourcing, is the best way to ensure a more transparent and egalitarian society. As continued media conglomeration condenses millions of unique forms of news into a few data streams, even if in pseudo-democratic formats, we lose our ability to see the world through multiple lenses—and our capacity to make educated decisions about the world around us.

 

(Originally published on GeekSnack)

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