Nieman Foundation at Harvard
You’re more likely to believe fake news shared by someone you barely know than by your best friend
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Aug. 29, 2016, 12:23 p.m.
LINK:  ➚   |   Posted by: Joseph Lichterman   |   August 29, 2016

Mere hours after Facebook announced that its Trending section would become more algorithmically controlled, users noticed that the social network was surfacing a fake news story about Fox News host Megyn Kelly.

Facebook on Friday said it was making a change to its Trending feature by eliminating descriptions of each story and instead just listing a broad topic that’s chosen by its algorithm. Quartz reported that Trending will now be overseen by a team of engineers that are overseeing the algorithm, and that the move eliminated about 18 contract editorial jobs on the team that wrote the descriptors.

The social network came under fire earlier this year after Gizmodo reported that Facebook’s editors purposefully excluded conservative news sites from Trending. Facebook said it “looked into these claims and found no evidence of systematic bias.”

Still, it decided to give more power to the algorithm. By Monday morning, the fake Kelly story had disappeared from the site, but the stories that were trending — at least for me — weren’t necessarily news, or even particularly timely.

My top trending topic Monday morning was Go Topless Day, which was apparently celebrated on Sunday. The lead post was a story from the Canadian site DailyHive that was posted Friday to preview Vancouver’s Go Topless Day Parade that happened Sunday afternoon.

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Other top trending topics were McChicken, which linked to a Mashable post that aggregated Twitter reactions to a video of a man having sex with a McDonald’s sandwich; LCD Soundsystem, which has plans for a new album; and Mila Kunis, for which the top story was a post from a page called That Viral Feed. Not exactly the highest quality results — especially given Facebook’s efforts over the past year to reduce the spread of clickbait in the main News Feed.

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According to a Pew Research Center study from earlier this year, more than 40 percent of American adults get their news from Facebook.

Facebook — and its algorithm — are extremely powerful and exert huge amounts of control over what type of news coverage a significant number of its users see. So what does it mean when it’s promoting blatantly false news and clickbait aggregation? How can legitimate news outlets operate in this environment when they are becoming increasingly reliant on Facebook? Do users even care that they’re being fed stories from sites of ill repute?

In a story in this week’s New York Times Magazine, David Carr fellow John Herrman wrote that hyper-political pages have taken over Facebook, and thus much of the conversation around the U.S. election, without much thought about issues such as sourcing or accuracy.

But truly Facebook-native political pages have begun to create and refine a new approach to political news: cherry-picking and reconstituting the most effective tactics and tropes from activism, advocacy and journalism into a potent new mixture. This strange new class of media organization slots seamlessly into the news feed and is especially notable in what it asks, or doesn’t ask, of its readers. The point is not to get them to click on more stories or to engage further with a brand. The point is to get them to share the post that’s right in front of them. Everything else is secondary.

While web publishers have struggled to figure out how to take advantage of Facebook’s audience, these pages have thrived. Unburdened of any allegiance to old forms of news media and the practice, or performance, of any sort of ideological balance, native Facebook page publishers have a freedom that more traditional publishers don’t: to engage with Facebook purely on its terms. These are professional Facebook users straining to build media companies, in other words, not the other way around.

As Facebook continues to tweak its algorithm and these Facebook-native outfits continue to take advantage of the platform’s ever-changing rules, journalists have been debating where that leaves traditional news outlets.

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