Zuckerberg explained in August 2016: “No, we are a tech company, not a media company…..We build the tools, we do not produce any content..”[iii]
One of those tools is the Facebook News Feed, which provides every one of the almost 2bn[iv] monthly active users a hyper- personalised news stream: “…an algorithmically generated and constantly refreshing summary of updates …” [v] from friends and any other page a user follows, plus targeted ads and Page suggestions from Facebook. There is also the Trending module on the right hand side of the Facebook user home page, which surfaces news stories and is entirely created by an algorithm[vi].
How Facebook News Feed works
The Facebook algorithm is complex but it essentially works by identifying key features of a post i.e. is it a video, who posted it, how often was it shared and by whom, and also uses natural language processing to identify the text, topics and sentiments within the post.
Then, in order to present relevant content to the specific user, Facebook analyses the past behaviour of the user and other users across hundreds of factors, then predicts the likelihood that the user will engage with this piece of content because they or people like them previously engaged with this content type and topic. This likelihood, combined with the age of the content and how popular it is across the network is its News Feed Rank score. Content is then selected and sorted so that the highest ranked content is first in the news feed, and then presented in descending order.
The Facebook algorithm is constantly being tweaked by Facebook through unsupervised machine learning, supplemented by the analysis of their team of data scientists, and qualitative feedback from dedicated user focus groups.[vii][viii]
Benefits of Facebook News Feed
Using unsupervised text analysis and machine learning algorithms to find and serve up content to the specific user has a lot of benefits, as such hyper-personalisation can be performed economically at scale, giving huge international reach for content creators, publishers, and interest groups.
Users are served up content that has a high probability of being from like-minded people, brands and groups, without having to search for it themselves (although that too is possible, utilising text analysis and search tools).
Brands and groups can quickly gain followers or reach a large audience if they know how to use the system, which is a great platform for brand awareness or for non-mainstream/minority causes to publish and broadcast their views.
In this regard, the Facebook News Feed provides the promise of freedom of speech and capitalist marketplace for its users, as does the internet as a whole:
“What is driving the Net is the promise of political efficacy, of the enhancement of democracy through citizens’ access and use of new communications technologies.”[ix]
Facebook as a technology company build the tools, and then content creators and publishers use the platform and the News Feed algorithm to find an audience for their content. Facebook is the neutral, laissez faire “marketplace”, with community guidelines to prevent hate and crimes from being encouraged[x].
Downsides of Facebook News Feed
However, recent events have highlighted some of the flaws in the News Feed algorithm and the processes for dealing with errors in it. In the recent US election, it was uncovered that fake news sites were being promoted in peoples feeds to gain advertising revenue[xi]. The algorithm currently cannot identify legitimate news sites and satirical and/or fake sites. Facebook also have not developed their automated monitoring systems, or escalation workflows at the same rate as their automated products, and just this week a horrific video of a man murdering another man in cold blood remained on the site for 3 hours after it was initially reported[xii].
It is becoming increasingly difficult for Facebook to argue that it is not a media company, or that it does not have a responsibility to its users and the community for how its tools are used.
Facebook and its newsfeed algorithm are under pressure to assure the community that they are not proliferating fake news, manipulating their users emotions [xiii], promoting hate, discouraging respect or dialogue by seeing both sides of a debate[xiv], or broadcasting violent and terrible video and taking too long to remove it[xv]. Even more so, they are under pressure from their advertisers to ensure their brands are not placed next to such content. Some advertisers have recently pulled advertising from Google and Youtube and Facebook are very aware they could be next[xvi].
In addition, for Facebook’s users, the algorithm is not transparent and not able to be re-set or customised or trained by the user. Users can find it frustrating and feel like they are stuck in an echo chamber, where they are open to manipulation by Facebook, lobby groups or unscrupulous advertisers who know how to game the algorithm.
“What if people “like” posts that they don’t really like, or click on stories that turn out to be unsatisfying? The result could be a news feed that optimizes for virality, rather than quality—one that feeds users a steady diet of candy, leaving them dizzy and a little nauseated, liking things left and right but gradually growing to hate the whole silly game.” [xvii]
On balance, I think the benefits of the Facebook News Feed algorithm and natural language processing outweigh these costs. Facebook is still very much listening to their users and aware that there is intense competition for their attention, and therefore are constantly working to improve the algorithm and their products.
For example, in January 2017 Facebook made changes to the Trending module to only show trusted news sources[xviii], in April 2017 implemented a button to report possible fake news stories, and have established a user group to provide real human feedback on the algorithm.
Facebook recently announced a project with esteemed journalist Jeff Jarvis and CUNY to build relationships and support credible journalism. [xix]
Even Mark Zuckerberg CEO of Facebook is changing his tune. In December 2016 he said,
“Facebook is a new kind of platform. It’s not a traditional technology company…It’s not a traditional media company. You know, we build technology and we feel responsible for how it’s used.”[xx]
Which is just as well, because whilst he might not want to admit he is a media company, 2bn users a month use Facebook for their news, and if Facebook doesn’t act responsibly, legislators will eventually catch on that Facebook and social media is very much key to the worlds global media ecosystem.
[ii] Reuters.com, Giulia Segreti. 2016. Facebook CEO says group will not become a media company. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-facebook-zuckerberg-idUSKCN1141WN. [Accessed 17 April 2017].
[iii] Reuters.com, Giulia Segreti. 2016. Facebook CEO says group will not become a media company. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-facebook-zuckerberg-idUSKCN1141WN. [Accessed 17 April 2017].
[v] Wikipedia.com, Timeline of Facebook. [ONLINE] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_Facebook [Accessed 17 April 2017].
[vi] TheGuardian.com, Facebook fires trending topics team [ONLINE] available at: “https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/aug/29/facebook-fires-trending-topics-team-algorithm [Accessed 17 April 2017].
[vii] Slate.com, How Facebook’s news feed algorithm works [ONLINE] Available at http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/cover_story/2016/01/how_facebook_s_news_feed_algorithm_works.html [Accessed 17 April 2017].
[viii] Techcrunch.com, Ultimate guide to the Facebook News Feed [ONLINE] Available at https://techcrunch.com/2016/09/06/ultimate-guide-to-the-news-feed/ [Accessed 17 April 2017].
[ix] Dean, Jodi (2005), “Communicative Capitalism: Circulation and the Foreclosure of Politics,” Cultural Politics 1(1): 62.
[x] Facebook, Controversial, Harmful and hateful speech on Facebook [ONLINE] Available at https://www.facebook.com/notes/facebook-safety/controversial-harmful-and-hateful-speech-on-facebook/574430655911054/ [Accessed 17 April 2017].
[xi] Forbes.com How Facebook helped Donald Trump become president [ONLINE] Available at https://www.forbes.com/sites/parmyolson/2016/11/09/how-facebook-helped-donald-trump-become-president/#3a548ab759c5[Accessed 17 April 2017].
[xii] Theaustralian.com.au, 2017. Murder video forecasts scrutiny at Facebook [ONLINE] Available at http://www.theaustralian.com.au/business/wall-street-journal/murder-video-forces-scrutiny-at-facebook/news-story/79aa1b6e6acf9dce738062f226c422a6 [Accessed 20 April 2017]
[xiii] Theguardian.com Facebook reveals news feed experiment to contol emotions [ONLINE] Available at https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/jun/29/facebook-users-emotions-news-feeds [Accessed 17 April 2017].
[xiv] Financial Times, Facebook and the manufacture of consent [ONLINE] Available at https://ftalphaville.ft.com/2016/11/16/2179807/facebook-and-the-manufacture-of-consent/
[Accessed 17 April 2017].
[xv] Theaustralian.com.au, 2017. Murder video forecasts scrutiny at Facebook [ONLINE] Available at http://www.theaustralian.com.au/business/wall-street-journal/murder-video-forces-scrutiny-at-facebook/news-story/79aa1b6e6acf9dce738062f226c422a6 [Accessed 20 April 2017]
[xvi] TheGuardian.com Google pledges more control for brands over ad placement [ONLINE] Available at https://www.theguardian.com/media/2017/mar/17/google-pledges-more-control-for-brands-over-ad-placement [Accessed 17 April 2017].
[xvii] Slate.com How Facebook’s news feed algorithm works [ONLINE] Available at http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/cover_story/2016/01/how_facebook_s_news_feed_algorithm_works.html [Accessed 17 April 2017].
[xviii] RT.com Facebook fake news trending algorithm [ONLINE] Available at https://www.rt.com/viral/375121-facebook-fake-news-trending-algorithm/ [Accessed 17 April 2017].
[xix] UsaToday.com Facebook Friends media journalism project [ONLINE] Available at https://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/news/2017/01/11/facebook-friends-media-journalism-project/96428460/ [Accessed 17 April 2017].
[xx] Techcrunch.com, Josh Constine, Zuckerberg implies Facebook is a media company, just not a traditional media company [ONLINE] Available at https://techcrunch.com/2016/12/21/fbonc/ [Accessed 17 April 2017].