Fidji Simo, Director of Product at Facebook, recently announcing a large, coordinated effort to bolster Facebook’s ability to collect, verify, and distribute online news. They’re calling it the Facebook Journalism Project, and Mr. Simo categorized the various efforts of the project into three areas: collaborative development of news products, training and tools for journalists, and training and tools for everyone.
Predictably, a number of the efforts deal with helping journalists better understand and use Facebook products. This will come primarily through a whole new series of e-learning courses, eventually certified by Poynter, that focus on Live, Instant Articles, and other Facebook tools for building a presence and distributing stories.
Of the 10 key areas Mr. Simo highlighted, three of them were particularly interesting: news-specific hackathons, focused on collaborating with news organizations; working with the News Literacy Project to develop a series of public service ads for Facebook users; and helping First Draft News, a nonprofit focused on digital trust and ethics, establish a virtual verification community for eyewitness media. These are all problems that are both important and could benefit from a company with the influence and resources as Facebook.
Yet, for some, I imagine the Facebook Journalism Project serves as a visible reminder to how rough 2016 was for Facebook and online news.
In May, Gizmodo’s Michael Nunez spoke with former Facebook workers, who said they routinely suppressed conservative stories from appearing in the Trending Topics section of the site. This kicked off a whole slew of responses, and set the stage for events later that summer.
In August, Facebook stated they had investigated the claims in Gizmodo’s piece and found “no evidence of systematic bias”. Shortly after that story, Quartz reported that Facebook had laid off the entire Trending Topics editorial staff and would be replacing them with engineers, automation, and algorithms. Then, only three days after Quart’z piece, the Washington Post reported a top post for Facebook’s Trending Topics featured a factually incorrect article about Megyn Kelly, stating she had been fired from Fox News. She hadn’t, and attention shifted from the suppression of conservative news to the unintentional elevation of fake stories.
In some ways, the Facebook Journalism Project is embarrassingly late to the party, and work to tackle the effects of reinforced ideological bubbles could have begun much sooner. In 2016, the Pew Research Center reported that 62% of U.S. adults get their news from social media, and on Facebook, which reaches about 67% of all U.S. adults, about two-thirds of its users get their news from the site. I imagine those numbers will continue to rise for the foreseeable future, as Facebook looks to push past over 1.8 billion active monthly users.
The Facebook Journalism Project is a good first set of acknowledgements and initiatives, but they shouldn’t be the only ones. If Facebook wants to be a “place for public discourse”, an institution that blends media and technology, the company should continue to devote money, talent, and time to projects like this one. The first step to solving a problem is recognizing there is one, and while I don’t know if the Facebook Journalism Project will solve anything, it’s uplifting that they’re trying.