Business

Can Facebook resolve its news problems without losing credibility?

The social networking giant announced partnerships Wednesday with The Poynter Institute and other major players in the journalism world.

People are silhouetted as they pose with mobile devices in front of a screen projected with a Facebook logo in this picture illustration taken in Zenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina, in 2014.
Dado Ruvic/Reuters/File | Caption

Facebook unveiled a sketch Wednesday of its plans to improve journalism for news consumers and producers alike, as the social networking giant begins to reckon with the reality that many of its nearly 1.8 billion users rely heavily on the platform for timely information, despite the site's reputation for spreading viral falsehoods.

The company's long list of initiatives includes a partnership with The Poynter Institute and other notable players in the journalism world to develop online educational tools for journalists, and a series of public service announcements to continue raising awareness about the perils of "fake news" on the site. Given the company's lingering reticence to take on any real editorial role – as Facebook News Feed Vice President Adam Mosseri put it in a blog post last month, "we cannot become arbiters of truth ourselves" – balancing the interests of the general public against a diverse media ecosystem will not be an easy task.

By taking a more hands-on approach to news, Facebook could run the risk of eliciting backlash from users who may feel the company slighted one outlet for another. Meanwhile, some journalistic publications could feel inclined to push back against the network as an unwelcome competitor for online revenue. Even so, many remain optimistic that Facebook's plan signals a shift in priorities that is long overdue.

"Not all of these initiatives are going to work, but the fact that they are trying all of them should only be seen as a positive thing," Claire Wardle of First Draft News told The Guardian.

The Poynter partnership will entail an online curriculum of courses about Facebook and Instagram products to teach journalists how to maximize the company's tools and services, Poynter President Tim Franklin said in a statement, citing the group's past training partnerships with more than 20 other media companies.

By opening this channel of communication with the news industry, Facebook looks to gather feedback and ideas for future products as well, with the possibility of employing new storytelling formats.

"For example, we've heard from editors that they want to be able to present packages of stories to their most engaged readers on Facebook," product director Fidji Simo wrote in a blog. "We're starting to work with several partners on how best to do this."

Down the road, Facebook plans to offer training to local newsrooms in collaboration with the Knight Foundation, Detroit Journalism Cooperative, and other organizations, Ms. Simo added.

Shailesh Prakash, chief intelligence officer and vice president for digital product development at The Washington Post, said the coming change looks to be a significant one for the better.

"There would be times when Facebook would come to us with a new product or function, but by the time we were invited to participate, product development was already kind of a done deal," Mr. Prakash told The New York Times. "You had to fix your content and design into their parameters."

"Now we're finally coming to a more formal positioning of a model where we can begin working together much earlier in the process," Prakash added.

For news consumers, Facebook will now add to its fact-checking efforts announced last month by rolling out a public awareness campaign in coordination with the News Literacy Project, a nonprofit that has spent the past seven years teaching secondary-school kids and educators about information literacy. Alan Miller, the project's president and founder, says his team will build upon its classroom experience and deliver a very similar message to a broader audience, using a multimedia format via Facebook, for eight weeks this spring.

"This makes sense to me and us as the place to go to share the tools to be better-informed consumers and sharers of all that people are getting on the platform," Mr. Miller tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview Wednesday.

The topic of "fake news" as a matter of political significance and public concern came to the fore in 2016, largely in conjunction with the highly contentious US presidential campaign. With individual users publishing and republishing information without verifying it, social media sites like Facebook were rife with misleading and highly partisan articles, plus outright lies. Many called on Facebook to wield a heavier hand in the fight against misinformation.

Unlike the platform's fact-checking efforts, the information literacy campaign does not exist to challenge particular facts or sources. Instead, it will focus on longer-term educational outcomes.

"Our goal is not to tell people what to trust in terms of any particular information or any particular sources of information," says Miller, a former journalist who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2003. "What we seek to do is to give people the tools to make those judgments on their own and to do that in a way that is scrupulously nonpartisan."

Facebook will give the project a $100,000 donation and offer engineering assistance in the development of an app to support the organization's education campaign, Miller says.

Even if Facebook manages to appease everyday users and convince journalistic publications that collaboration won't spell financial ruin, there's another point of possible contention. Facebook's new hire to run interference between the company and its news partners is former TV journalist Campbell Brown.

"This is a different role for me, but one where I will be tapping my newsroom experience to help news organizations and journalists work more closely and more effectively with Facebook," Ms. Brown said in a statement. "I will be working directly with our partners to help them understand how Facebook can expand the reach of their journalism, and contribute value to their businesses."

After leaving television, Brown became a vocal advocate on education policy matters, and she founded The 74 Media Inc. – an education publication that "promoted a specific advocacy agenda ... under the banner of nonpartisan and unbiased journalism," as Poynter Chief Media Writer James Warren wrote on Monday.

"Might she be a great choice by Facebook? Perhaps. We'll see," Mr. Warren added. "There might just be a credibility challenge in her dealing with media organizations."

Even if one or more of the proposed policies falls flat, Facebook has vowed to keep pushing.

"This is just the beginning of our effort," Simo wrote in a company blog post.