Guest Opinion: Facebook's ‘Trending’ machinery

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Oct. 21
Stock image

Facebook is “a tech company, not a media company.” That’s not just the opinion of a few traditional journalists. It’s a quote from Mark Zuckerberg, the tech company’s founder and CEO. And as Facebook’s recent troubles with truth illustrate, it’s a fact users need to remember.

Facebook may be a good place to keep up with friends and acquaintances, but when it comes to getting the news, it can’t substitute for the judgment of professionals at a news organization you trust.

For several weeks, Washington Post bloggers tracked the stories they saw featured under the “Trending” banner high on the Facebook home page. They found humorous fake news, such as an article claiming that a new version of Siri would make the iPhone “something like Aladdin’s lamp,” from which a physical assistant would appear to do your chores. They found news they said turned out to be inaccurate. They found blog posts and press releases.

These pieces of content were presumably popular, or at least related to popular topics. Otherwise, Facebook’s software would not have selected them. But popularity does not turn satire into news.

Nevertheless, Facebook presented them as “Trending” because it does not have editors. It got rid of them this summer after being accused of political bias. Now its trending topics are reviewed by engineers, who were given instructions that call for so little human judgment they might be computers.

Putting together a news report requires judgment. Editors bring a lot to that judgment that would be hard for software to replace. There’s common sense. There’s effort. There’s professional expertise, both on current affairs and on the process of gathering and evaluating news. There is the recognition that sometimes the most important things for people to know, and especially for citizens of a republic to know, aren’t the things that get the most clicks. Most important, there is an ethical commitment to the truth.

And if that ethical commitment is not enough, it’s backed by powerful incentives Facebook does not share. If you are in the news business, all you have is your credibility; if people don’t trust you, they won’t visit your site, let alone pay for a newspaper or a digital subscription. If you are a social-media site, people will keep coming whether you provide good journalism or not.

None of this is to say that Facebook doesn’t provide valuable services. But giving you an accurate report of the most important news of the day is not Facebook’s competency, or ambition. To better see and understand the world, you need journalists — fellow humans.