Digital Journalism has just published my new article, “Facebook in the News: Social media, journalism, and public responsibility following the 2016 Trending Topics controversy.” This piece examines the dustup surrounding the Facebook’s Trending Topics feature (see the image for an example), which became news itself (see image again) after Gizmodo reported that Facebook had used human editors to make the feature work followed by accusations that these editors were biased against conservative news. This led to public outcry while the social media giant tried to address claims, assuage critics, and figure out how its features should work. Despite no evidence to back up claims of bias, the site nonetheless became apologetic and, ultimately, more automated.
What my study does is examine reactions to the controversy to expose competing discourses about just what Facebook’s relationship to news is. For the social media company, news is just content, part of the way the site gets used. Like any content, Facebook needs it to be sticky enough to keep users on the site. It also grants Facebook the patina of seriousness. This was evident in much of the discourse around news that the company produced before and after the Trending Topics controversy.
Journalists and others pulled Facebook into the news orbit, assigning the site with responsibility for its place in the news ecosystem. By favorably comparing the editorial judgment of professional journalists, Facebook is cast as delinquent in its duties of ensuring a vibrant public sphere.
Facebook, of course, is reluctant to adopt an overt place as a news publisher, lest it fall prey to the same criticism that befalls much of contemporary journalism. It sees itself as a platform rather than an editor.
But what is interesting after the fact is the context this research provides. The study covers May-August 2016, with the outcome of Facebook firing its human editors to rely instead on algorithms to figure out its top stories. Accompanying snippets of information written by humans was replaced by traffic updates of how many users were sharing the story. This led directly to the bigger controversy of Facebook and fake news, which has only deepened the criticism of Facebook for abdicating its role within news. Facebook has been prodded to do more, but the larger confusion over what Facebook ought to do and what it ought to be is far from settled.