Facebook as the new gatekeeper of journalism

Facebook’s algorithms now go a long way in dictating what news users see:

“We try to explicitly view ourselves as not editors,” he said. “We don’t want to have editorial judgment over the content that’s in your feed. You’ve made your friends, you’ve connected to the pages that you want to connect to and you’re the best decider for the things that you care about.”…

Roughly once a week, he and his team of about 16 adjust the complex computer code that decides what to show a user when he or she first logs on to Facebook. The code is based on “thousands and thousands” of metrics, Mr. Marra said, including what device a user is on, how many comments or likes a story has received and how long readers spend on an article…

If Facebook’s algorithm smiles on a publisher, the rewards, in terms of traffic, can be enormous. If Mr. Marra and his team decide that users do not enjoy certain things, such as teaser headlines that lure readers to click through to get all the information, it can mean ruin. When Facebook made changes to its algorithm in December 2013 to emphasize higher-quality content, several so-called viral sites that had thrived there, including Upworthy, Distractify and Elite Daily, saw large declines in their traffic.

Facebook executives frame the company’s relationship with publishers as mutually beneficial: when publishers promote their content on Facebook, its users have more engaging material to read, and the publishers get increased traffic driven to their sites. Numerous publications, including The New York Times, have met with Facebook officials to discuss how to improve their referral traffic.

Is Facebook a better gatekeeper than news outlets, editors, and the large corporations that often run them? I see three key differences:

1. Facebook’s methods are based on social networks and what your friends and others in your feed like. This may be not too much different than checking sites yourselves – especially since people often go to the same sites or go to ones that end to agree with them – but the results are out of your hands.

2. Ultimately, Facebook wants to connect you to other people using news, not necessarily give you news for other purposes like being an informed citizen or spurring you to action. This is a different process than seeking out news sites that primarily produce news (even if that is now often a lot of celebrity or entertainment info).

3. The news is interspersed with new pieces of information about the lives of others. This likely catches people’s attention and doesn’t provide an overwhelming amount of news or information that is abstracted from the user/reader.

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