The good, bad, trivial of Facebook as news editor

  • Manu Joseph
  • Updated: Nov 17, 2014 07:47 IST

After faith, what a delusion needs in order to take over a host mind is corroboration. Here is where ‘friends’ come in. Friends, as most of us know, are people on Facebook who usually share information.

Among the things they post on their newsfeeds are, in fact, news. And columns, too, thankfully. An increasing number of people are now doing many things primarily on Facebook, including consuming journalism. And what they are most influenced by is what their friends have shared.

As a result their hopes and convictions find easy confirmations, and are seldom challenged on their newsfeeds. The world might be fragmenting, but within the fragments there is an eerie, almost indestructible, uniformity of minds. Facebook did not create this, but it has facilitated, and will do so more effectively in the future.

But then this is a minor strand in the transformation of how journalism is accessed.

Facebook, like most smart people and entities, has a mild disregard for what humans might achieve when left to their own devices. So it intervenes in the composition of newsfeeds to make them interesting. It does this through a secret, evolving algorithm that decides, on the basis of personal histories, what people might be interested in seeing when they are inside Facebook.

Such a seductive newsfeed not only makes it easier for the users to shift to online journalism but also lures them to bypass the digital versions of conventional media. Already, for a vast section of the youth, the very idea of a newspaper’s homepage is nostalgic. They are not foraging for news, they are being fed, and fed what they like.

An old secret of journalism that most of what it says is news is actually not. Just because a newspaper of a certain respectable thickness has to appear daily it does not mean there is that amount of news that is fit to print every day. But then it has to fill its spaces with reasonable information.

Hence, ‘Bus Falls Off Bridge’. It is not just newspapers, all forms of conventional media of varying periodicities, except for very few, struggle to find engaging stories because they are what matter, yet most of their revenues go into producing and presenting content that is unremarkable.

News media that do not exist in physical forms do not have this problem. What the swift online shift in the consumption of journalism, greatly assisted by Facebook, is doing is that it is placing the very small on a par with the giants.

There is a bit of altruism embedded in the very idea of a newspaper — what sells finances what does not, which often includes what is important. The two types of content coexist, along with, of course, ‘Bus Falls Off The Bridge’. But in a world where people are beginning to read stories and not newspapers, the prospects for the unsexy (‘The State of Government Hospitals’) are bleak. In an ideal world, what is important should also always be interesting, but it is hard to achieve that.

No doubt Facebook is now an ally of mainstream journalism as any good distributor of content would be, but it is also an efficient medium for disseminating rubbish. Over the past few weeks, many were fooled by a story that was originally the work of a satirical website — that all of Earth would be enveloped in total darkness for six days in December because of a solar storm.

Facebook is most dangerous when a major conflict divides society, as did Israel’s attack on Gaza. Facebook users, in the passions of their ideologies, found, in their newsfeed of course, news and visuals that endorsed their emotions. They attached credibility to these stories because they were posted by their friends, and propagated them without enduring the inconvenience of verifying them. For that they would have had to take the trouble to go to the website of a respectable news organisation.

Also popular were morsels of phoney history delivered to those who had the time only to form opinions and not read books — ‘7 Myths About The Palestinian Conflict’; ‘9 Facts About Israel’; ‘History of the Conflict in 5 minutes’. Whatever happened to even numbers?

In a recent interview to The New York Times, Greg Marra, who is a 26-year-old Facebook engineer and whose team is responsible for the algorithm that runs Newsfeed, implied that quality of journalistic content is of interest to his organisation. The story in The Times stated, “When Facebook made changes to its algorithm in December 2013 to emphasise higher-quality content, several so-called viral sites that had thrived there, including Upworthy, Distractify and Elite Daily, saw large declines in their traffic.”

But Facebook’s primate goal for Newsfeed is unambiguous, according to the report, “…to identify what users most enjoy, and its results vary around the world. In India, he (Marra) said, people tend to share what the company calls the ABCDs: Astrology, Bollywood, cricket and divinity.”

Most of the stories that become popular on Facebook are, naturally, free. Newsfeed functions like a supernewspaper of free content from various parts of the world. There is a popular view that most of the world will not pay for online journalism as they have been habituated to paying nothing for journalism. But it is inevitable that in the future high-quality journalism will not remain free. Great journalism then will become niche and expensive, and very rarely found on Newsfeed.

(Manu Joseph is a journalist and the author of the novel The Illicit Happiness of Other People. The views expressed by the author are personal.)

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