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May 11, 2016, 9:24 a.m.
Audience & Social

Newsonomics: Facebook’s Trending Topics and the growing power of the funnel filter

Platforms aren’t neutral — but it’s not just a digital problem.

Forget the sideshow of mock Republican outrage about Facebook twisting and turning the truth and forcing the liberal agenda on an unwary America.

The real story here, just poked at in the mild Gizmodo revelations, is how fewer people are deciding what more people see as “news” every moment and every day. This has been the Year of the Platform as the three hugely dominant companies of our time — Facebook, Google, and Apple — battle to win maximal time on their products (competitor Amazon plays a parallel but different game).

Each Internet behemoth wants to corral more user time. And that game has forced news publishers into a tizzy since mid-2015. All the big digital players, from The New York Times and Dow Jones to Atlantic Media and the BBC, are warily testing how many full-text stories (and now, videos) to let the platforms host. Only The Washington Post is all-in on Facebook Instant Articles, and that’s an echo of Amazon’s own contrarian strategic play.

While this new would-be Platform Age has produced uneven results so far, we see the wider problem that it unintentionally reinforces. As platforms gain even more centrality in our lives, there are fewer gatekeepers for the digital news readers receive.

Ironically, with the widening of (national) news choices that the Internet has spawned, we’re depending on fewer pipelines of news. It’s a narrowing of the filter funnel, just another unintended consequence of the digital re-shaping of our lives. It’s just as troubling as the filter bubbles that used to occupy our concerns, but likely more potent.

As those pipelines narrow, necessarily, the decision on what is news, and what is important in news, inevitably falls to fewer people and their buddy bots.

So a few liberal-leaning curators at Facebook de-prioritizing “conservative” viewpoints isn’t surprising at all. Someone has got to decide what’s the most important and least important news — and what to display where. Editors at wire services, newspapers, and TV and radio stations have long done that. Readers have long complained about the slant of this or that, and politicians have run against the media and its bent forever, though the pace has clearly picked up in recent years.

What’s different now, though, is where news readers get their news. Pew, in a study released last year, found that 63 percent each of Facebook and Twitter used the platform as a source of news. That percentage is only growing as publishers increasingly play, in various ways, with the platforms.

Certainly, these platform wars have offered publishers some new opportunities — and has given them the sense of having more control over what they can now present on platforms like Facebook Instant Articles.

Yet, as publishers have learned, nothing is as changeable as the decisions, strategies, and algorithms of the platforms.

Even if they’re offering a little more publisher control in some of their new programs, it is Facebook and Apple who decide what many of their news consumers will and won’t read. That’s because they control the placement of news stories in their “trending topics” (the source of the current Reince Priebus/Mark Zuckerberg flap) or in news feeds. And those are still where most platform users are getting their news.

Therein lies that narrowing filter funnel. If more and more news readers depend on platforms’ judgments about what’s news, the diversity of judgment about it narrows as well. Yes, we can all turn to individual sources and savor the differences, for instance, between what The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal consider top news, but fewer of us are doing it, relying on the platforms to tell us instead.

Those decisions are being made by some combination of humans and algorithms. And who programs those algorithms? Humans. Human fallibility — and built-in bias — are inevitable. The bent isn’t just liberal or conservative. It threatens to become more insidious, as groupthink risks becoming invisibly commonplace.

Some, including the platforms, will say it’s not an issue. Consumers can go (for now, anyway) directly to originating sources. Of course they can, but some may forego that option as news companies outsource everything that can be outsourced. So why not just produce the content and let Facebook do the distribution? That day is coming sooner than later.

In any event, humans are creatures of habit, and the platforms have changed news reading habits. Facebook can claim 167 million American users and about 20 minutes of usage a day; the most successful news giants don’t quite reach that number in an average month. The reckoning largely shared in the industry is that we’ve got to use these platforms to reach audiences, especially the emerging younger ones, and manage that potential life-threatening peril judiciously.

Platforms want to become the last point of delivery so they can best monetize eyeballs. As they become that last point, the actual decisions on what’s news passes into invisible hands, and machines that techies would tell us are neutral or above the fray.

Nonsense. The machines will give us — for now — what the human teachers instruct them to give us. If readers get the news from Apple, they are buying the news judgment of Apple.

This isn’t just a digital issue, though.

As Gannett and Tribune play hostile footsie, the rationale for Gannett’s premium-sized offer bases itself on “efficiencies.” Prominent among them: replacing the judgment of desk editors at many of its papers (and presumably at the L.A. Times and Chicago Tribune as well) with those of one group of editors at Gannett HQ in suburban Virginia. That, too, is a narrowing of filter funnel.

Those Gannett editors may indeed be more identifiable than the largely faceless Facebookers deciding what Facebook news readers will get, but the effect is the same: Gannett, too, is leveraging its platform.

Power, to paraphrase Mao, grows out of the barrel of a funnel. In this affair, we should be paying less attention to the posturing of the politicians and more to the puissance of the platforms.

Photo by Scott Ableman used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     May 11, 2016, 9:24 a.m.
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