There Are Better Ways to Serve Journalism Than to Rank Outlets by Trustworthiness
by Dan RobitzskiYou know what will distract Facebook users after a few months of eroding trust? Some new features.
Yesterday, Mark Zuckerberg — the same billionaire who founded Facebook and once called people who use it and trust him “dumb fucks” — told a room full of journalists and media executives that he wants to collect data on which media outlets and news sources people interact with the most, and to also ask them whether they think different outlets are trustworthy.
His proposal was met with a healthy dose of skepticism. Editors reminded Zuck that objective facts, not a collection of like-minded opinions, make for good journalism, according to The Atlantic.
There are some good reasons to be skeptical. Under Zuck’s new proposal, outlets that speak to their audience’s existing opinions and beliefs would rule, while a team of the best and most ethical investigative journalists in the world would, apparently, drool. We can’t assess our news outlets objectively — humans are startlingly tribal, and recent research suggests that our brains actually respond to opinions that agree with our own the same as they respond to facts. So no matter how many times Zuck says he has the answer, a simple “do you like Breitbart y/n” probably won’t do the trick.
“Like a lot of things Facebook does, I think it’s an interesting idea, but poorly executed,” Andrew Seaman, the ethics committee chairperson of the Society of Professional Journalists, told Futurism. “I think one problem facing society is that people don’t know how to spot trustworthy news sources in today’s media environment. So, asking them to help highlight quality information seems foolish.”
Media outlets live and die by minor tweaks to algorithms that power Facebook and Google. Seaman suspects that prioritizing outlets just because people are familiar with them would also make it difficult for new news organizations to gather an audience.
Robert Hernandez of the USC Annenberg School of Journalism shared similar concerns. “I am hopeful they will be transparent and fair, but I am also realistic. It’s a business [above] all else, so I do expect it won’t be perfect,” he told Futurism. “And as a journalist who preaches freedom of speech and access to diverse voices, I am worried how exclusive this trustworthy list could be.”
What, then, could Facebook actually do to promote genuine journalism and to quiet misinformation?
Seaman suggests features that automatically add more context to any story that appears on Facebook. “If I were to design a solution — with Facebook’s resources, I think I’d have related news stories pop up under links to give people additional information and give a more complete picture of events,” Seaman said. “Also, if no other organization is reporting that story, I’d have a little box pop up warning readers that they should be skeptical of the information since it [can’t] be verified by additional sources.”
“I don’t know if Facebook should be the one that should determine what news organization is more trustworthy than others, but on their platform they have to do something,” Hernandez said. “Just like Google determines what results it first displays after a search, these companies have to do something.”
TechCrunch reported Friday that Facebook is now “shrinking” what it deems to be fake news in people’s News Feeds. This means that any article that Facebook fact checks and finds to be false will be reduced to just a text headline with no image, abutted by “related” fact-checking content that contracts it.
When Facebook announced it would survey users to rank news outlets by “trustworthiness,” I had my doubts about its methodology. As CEO Mark Zuckerberg described it, the company’s plan seemed to involve simply asking a bunch of people which outlets they’ve heard of and which ones they trust.