Digitally Yours: Facebook compromises marketplace of ideas

Terry Nguyen | Daily Trojan

On Friday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced the site will begin surveying users to determine “trustworthy, informative and local” news sources to highlight on news feeds. Last week, Zuckerberg also stated how the platform will begin emphasizing more personal interactions on the feed, decreasing the focus on news, branded content and video.

Although the shift in Facebook’s content strategy appears user-focused, it hints at the problems the site has faced in recent years: an overwhelming focus on sponsored content, with pitfalls in preventing the spread of fake news during the 2016 election cycle.

As Facebook attempts to fix itself algorithmically to curate the content users engage in, it must recognize its past failures — that is, complacently allowing misinformation to spread at the expense of maintaining a neutral front to keep users and advertisers alike.

Facebook should not rely solely on community responses to select trustworthy content to boost on users’ feeds, although Zuckerberg explains that as the most “objective” decision. From Zuckerberg’s post calling for users to rank media credibility, it appears he is removing Facebook’s curation responsibility and transferring this power to users instead. For better or for worse, media organizations and publishers will soon experience the impact of this change.

Yet, as Facebook takes a step back and allows users to decide for themselves which news providers they want to see more of, Zuckerberg’s statement neglects what studies have shown about news consumer habits, especially in a polarizing political atmosphere.

According to a 2015 study by Facebook researchers, users tend to selectively create echo chambers with others who share their views online – both as a result of the site’s algorithm and out of pure choice. In hindsight, these chambers have been effectively targeted by Russian-sponsored ads to further polarize users during the 2016 election.

“[The update] will only shift the balance of news you see towards sources that are determined to be trusted by the community,” Zuckerberg wrote.

However, there is a difference between trust and truth, and Zuckerberg’s statement alludes to the site’s potential compromise on objective truth to appease its users. What if a user trusts information from a source that is objectively not true?

Forty-three percent of Americans have a negative perspective of the news, according to a 2017 Gallup and Knight Foundation Survey, and a majority can’t name an objective news source.

And for journalists, would that mean the notion of fair, impartial reporting becomes compromised if one’s organization is not deemed trustworthy enough by the public? A 2014 Pew Research study shows that Buzzfeed News is distrusted as a news source by both liberals and conservatives; yet, the organization was a 2017 Pulitzer Prize finalist in international reporting.

Facebook’s news feed shift could prove detrimental to newer, non-traditional media outlets seeking to develop an audience base on the platform.

Although media organizations should take responsibility for restoring the disparity between journalists and the public, social networks play a crucial role in improving and repairing that relationship — 67 percent of Americans get their news from social media.

The concept of the “marketplace of ideas” remains critical to American democracy, yet social media has altered the pace at which users interact and share ideas. Users are now more likely to trust content shared by a trusted individual, even if the article is from an unknown media outlet, according to research by the Media Insight Project.

As publishers and brands seek to assimilate to the changing digital landscape, Facebook has become a platform suited for mass engagement and connection between journalists and individuals.

It’s a delicate balance Facebook needs to strive for: presenting users with accurate, truthful information while not restricting them to content selected by the general community.

Terry Nguyen is a sophomore majoring in journalism and political science. She is also the features editor of the Daily Trojan. Her column, “Digitally Yours,” runs every other Tuesday.