Can Facebook get us to care about serious news?

mark zuckerberg

For those paranoid that the Facebook algorithm is slowly reshaping out neural pathways so as to steer us away from critical thinking toward a clickbait-induced panoply of cat videos and other mindless “viral” content, the memo sent last week from Arianna Huffington to her editorial staff at AOL will only increase your worries. Noting that Facebook users are more likely to click on and share stories that are uplifting, Huffington declares that “the era of ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ is over” and that her staff should “start a positive contagion by relentlessly telling the stories of people and communities doing amazing things, overcoming great odds, and facing real challenges with perseverance, creativity, and grace.” It’s the kind of announcement you’d expect to be found in a memo beginning with the phrase “In Davos last week…”

Worries that Facebook is rewarding the wrong kind of media consumption are not uncommon, and there’s certainly sufficient data to help fuel those worries. Surveys produced by the Pew Research Center and others have consistently shown that what we share on Facebook and other social media platforms is more a reflection of what we want others to perceive as our moral philosophy rather than an accurate view of what we happen to be reading. Last month I interviewed Alex Skatell, the creator of one of the most viral news sites on the internet, who recently launched a news app that’s trying to close the gap between what news we share and what news we actually find important. The app attempts to solve this problem through a combination of machine learning and geotagging — displaying to us news that others in our geographic area have found interesting. “I may read a thousand stories a week, but only share one or two of them,” Skatell told me. “That’s not necessarily the best information for me to see, but it’s what shows up on social media sites. So how do you surface the other thousand articles that are being read but nobody is really posting to social media?”

But do we actually want to read hard, serious news? It’s easy for us to succumb to this idealism when asked by a pollster, but what we say we want and what we actually want when forced to make a choice can be two completely different things. After all, we love to make fun of women who use “duckface,” yet data shows that women who upload photos of themselves striking this pose are more likely to receive interest on dating websites.

Nobody is more interested in answering this question than Facebook. In a wonderful piece for Medium, Steven Levy detailed Facebook’s use of small focus groups in Tennessee who are paid to sit down and use a special modified version of Facebook for up to four hours a day. This modified version forces them to rate every piece of content displayed in their feed based on eight questions ranging from how welcome the story is in the newsfeed to “how much the story connected them to friends and family.” They’re then asked to write out a paragraph explaining how they feel about the story.

Facebook has long recognized that clicking on a piece of content doesn’t necessarily mean we want more of that type of content. What it faces is something Levy calls the “Dozen Doughnuts problem.”

Many people conscious of their weight know it’s not a good idea to eat a doughnut every day, and if given a choice would not prefer that someone come into the workplace every morning with twelve Krispy Kremes. But if a misguidedly generous worker did just that, the temptation to pluck one of those jelly-filled delights might overrule discretion. It’s not that you want the doughnut—you aren’t clamoring for one, and you won’t miss that sugar bomb if it’s not in front of your face. But once that delicacy is in front of you…oh, what the hell!

The problem for Facebook is what to do if it determines that we do, in fact, want serious, longform content. Short of hiring an editorial staff to wade through and rank news posts, a move that would be impractical because of its lack of scalability, it would be difficult for Facebook to discern news value outside the actions we take on the network — our likes, clicks, and comments. When virtually every news company on the internet is serving up its own box of doughnuts right next to its tray of vegetables, eventually your users will start reaching for the doughnuts no matter how much they’d like to abstain from doing so.

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As for what Facebook has learned from its Tennessee focus groups, the results so far are inconclusive. Its most insightful finding is that what we care most about is any story –whether it’s a photo or status update — that pertains to someone we actually know and feel close to.  “Our rankings get better and better the more a story is about a person and the less it’s about an article,” an engineer told Levy.

As for the news that exists outside our core group of close friends and family, so far it’s looking like the world envisioned by Huffington, one filled with happy, uplifting stories, a world pretending that bad things don’t exist, is the one we prefer. “When we asked what are the best stories, ones people said they really want to see, the highest percentage of impact type is a strong emotional reaction,” said newsfeed product manager Adam Mosseri. “People really want to see stuff that drives a laugh or makes them feel happy, not necessarily information that’s super valuable.” Perhaps Huffington’s friends at Davos really are onto something after all.

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.