Facebook has announced a new tweak to how they organise the News Feed. A fresh round of changes to the algorithm aims to prioritise original reporting and will demote content that lacks clear publisher information.
Tracing primary sources
The new approach is to trace developing news stories to the primary source. Once determined, that primary source will get boosted in the News Feed algorithm, so it should show up more.
As articles emerge on a particular topic, Facebook will group them and then analyse them all to identify which ones are most regularly quoted as ‘the original source’.
For articles that are not ‘the original’, it seems Facebook will attribute a value that indicates relative distance from the source. In theory, the closer to the original source an article is, the more help it will get with distribution on Facebook.
So, what is original?
Facebook concedes that they haven’t yet settled on firm definition of ‘original reporting’. They say that they’ll ‘work with publishers and academics’ to improve to refine this approach over time.
Matt Southern at Search Engine Journal observes that the currently promoted method could penalise smaller publishers of original material who often get their stories picked up by major outlets. In such cases, the larger publisher may still get the majority of link-backs on the basis of pre-existing reputation. If that happens, the real ‘original’ may be obfuscated from Facebook’s system.
Rank within existing Feed results
Facebook says these changes won’t mean that users are inundated with news from accounts in which they have no interest. Most of the news stories people see will still come from publishers that they or their friends follow.
Rather, the algorithm will re-sort news items that would already have appeared somewhere in the users feed. If multiple stories about the same topic are available in their News Feed, Facebook will boost the one that is ‘more original’. This is where that ‘relative distance from the source’ value comes into play.
Andrew Hutchison at Social Media Today reasons that ‘original source’ will still be subjugated to community buzz. ‘If another post is generating a heap of discussion among your friends,’ he says, ‘Facebook will probably want to show you that first, right? [even if it's not the original].
Demoting Non-Transparent Authorship
Facebook is also elevating transparency of authorship in significance. Outlets that lack transparency around authorship may find their articles get less traction on the platform.
Linked news articles will be reviewed for bylines and staff pages on the publisher’s website. If Facebook finds that the site lacks first and last names for reporters or other editorial staff, it’ll be deemed to also lack credibility. (According to Facebook’s research, publishers who do not include this information are often clickbait or ad farms.)
It will be interesting to see how these moves impact with other hot-button issues of fact checking and fake news. Will it inspire brands to stick with (or come back to) Facebook in the face of hate-speech-inspired boycotts?
At a glance, it seems that transparent authorship and the prioritisation of primary sources should see genuine journalism rise to the top. Whether it happens in practice will depend on how well and how quickly Facebook irons out the wrinkles.
Genuine news outlets hoping the new algorithm changes will boost their readership should familiarise themselves with the most recent update of ‘News Feed Today: A Guide for News Publishers’, released via the Facebook Journalism Project.
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