Facebook’s Plan To Strengthen Democracy

Skylar Sullivan Skylar Sullivan

Social media sites, especially Facebook and Twitter, play a large role in how people access news and information. Social media has been widely criticized for providing a platform for “fake news” and propaganda. In response to these concerns, we’ve seen a variety of responses. Most recently, Facebook is introducing a plan to “strengthen democracy” by introducing a news tab called Facebook News.

Facebook News Tab
News has long been a part of Facebook’s timeline. Many news sites post content to Facebook. Anyone, of course, can link to any news story that’s online. This is one of the problems as Facebook, along with other social media sites, has mostly avoided any type of censoring. At the same time, Facebook has taken steps to guide users away from questionable content. One tactic has been to post more reliable sources underneath controversial posts. For example, if someone posts a link to a flat earth story, a more mainstream article debunking the flat earth theory is likely to appear right under it.

The new feature represents a more proactive approach. Rather than reacting to questionable news stories, it’s a way to provide actual news to users. Facebook News, a feature that’s currently being tested on a limited number of accounts, is a dedicated news tab. As Facebook reports, it will have the following features:

  • Current news stories are chosen by a team of journalists.
  • Personalization based on users’ interests and browsing history. There will also be local news targeted to members in different areas.
  • A list of topics such as business, health, sports, and links to any paid subscription members may have.
  • Controls to customize your experience.

There’s nothing revolutionary in this format as it’s used on many sites such as Google, Yahoo, and many others. It is, however, new to Facebook, which is dominated by user-generated content. Introducing a more centralized source of news is an unusual move for a social media company. Initially, this feature is for members in the United States and major metropolitan areas such as Washington D.C., New York, Los Angeles, and others will be covered. Presumably, if the feature is popular and successful, coverage will expand.

There are already plenty of ways to access news on Facebook. Many members share links to news stories on their timelines. If you subscribe to pages of news organizations, you’ll see their content. Facebook News is not going to be a replacement for news that already appears in members’ timelines but an additional feature for people who want easy access to today’s leading stories.

Who Are the News Providers?
The goal of Facebook News is to make the social media site a more trustworthy source of information. This naturally raises the question of where this news will be coming from. All news providers must be registered with Facebook’s News Page Index. Sources will be checked for accuracy using “integrity signals” and anyone violating Facebook’s Publisher Guidelines, such as by publishing misinformation, hate speech or clickbait content will not be considered.

The Pros and Cons of a Facebook News Tab
It remains to be seen how people will respond to the Facebook News tab and whether it will become a permanent fixture or a short-lived experiment. We can, however, identify some of the likely benefits and drawbacks of this approach.

Pros

  • Trustworthy news stories can provide an authoritative counterpoint to fake news posted by users.
  • Members hungry for news can easily find it on Facebook without having to leave the site. This, of course, is good for Facebook as well as convenient for users.
  • Customizable features mean that users can access the kind of news and other features they prefer.

Cons

  • People who visit Facebook to escape more serious stories will see news here. They may feel that there are already enough places online to find news if they want it.
  • Personalization may lead to an increase of the ‘echo chamber” effect as people remove sources that express points of view they don’t already support.

Can Facebook Strengthen Democracy?
Facebook, along with Twitter and other social media platforms, are in a difficult position when it comes to issues related to news, propaganda, and censorship. They were designed to be open forums where anyone can express their point of view, excluding obvious violations such as harassment or hate speech. Unfortunately, it’s hard to please everybody. While some stories are obviously “fake,” many issues are debatable. Facebook has avoided outright censoring of content. Recently, for example, they announced that they would not be fact-checking political ads as we approach what will surely be a tense presidential election in 2020.

Facebook can also expect quite a bit of pressure in the coming months to crack down on bots, which were a controversial issue in the 2016 election. The hope may be that having a dedicated news tab will give more trustworthy news stories more emphasis even if individual users still post untrustworthy content. The goal to strengthen democracy by introducing a news feature is rather ambitious. In today’s political client, it’s fairly certain that any news platform will create a certain amount of controversy and claims of bias. The news tab might, however, help Facebook maintain a stance of objectivity when it comes to the news.

One of the changes in the new tab will be more human monitoring. Until recently, the news feed was controlled mostly by artificial intelligence. While this, in theory, creates the appearance of objectivity, it also conjures up fears of hacking or clever people manipulating the algorithm. The news tab will be overseen by a team of trained journalists which can act as a safeguard against anyone trying to rig the system.

A social media platform is ultimately meant to be run by users rather than administrators or even professional journalists. The problem is, millions of users choose to share content covering politics, current events, and cultural issues. Whether they like it or not, today’s social media platforms are news sources. Facebook is now acknowledging this by introducing an openly journalistic feature.