Technology First Look

Facebook's Instant Articles error: Another problem for news in the social media age?

The company apologized Friday for accidentally undercounting traffic, at a time when viewer analytics are becoming increasingly important for digital journalism. 

The Facebook logo is displayed on an iPad. Facebook is taking new measures to curb the spread of fake news on its huge and influential social network, focusing on the 'worst of the worst' offenders and partnering with outside fact-checkers to sort honest news reports from made-up stories that play to people's passions and preconceived notions.
Matt Rourke/AP/File
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Facebook is apologizing to publishers Friday after realizing that traffic was undercounted for the site’s Instant Articles between late September and November.

Instant Articles, a platform that allows news sites to publish directly to Facebook instead of linking back to their own site, offers exclusive designs and loading times that are up to 10 times faster than a typical News Feed article. 

Publishers monetize Instant Articles through ads, so accurate viewing metrics, which the social media site provides through their partner comScore, are especially important for ad buyers and marketers to allocate budgets. 

“We’ve uncovered an issue for a small group of Instant Articles publishers that impacts reporting in comScore,” Facebook wrote in a blog post Friday, saying the problem “caused an underreporting of iPhone traffic from Facebook in comScore products between Sep 20 to Nov 30, 2016.” 

For most publishers, the error impacted less than 1 percent of their traffic, The Wall Street Journal reported. But for others, such as The Washington Post, BuzzFeed and Variety, the publishers’ traffic was undercounted between 10 and 30 percent.

Facebook says they have reached out to the publishers affected by the incorrect metrics, and the site is working with comScore to produce updated, correct estimates for this time period. 

This is the fourth time that Facebook has announced metric discrepancies since September, according to The Wall Street Journal, at a time when accurate metrics are becoming increasingly important to digital journalism. 

“News organisations today are competing for attention in an ever-more competitive and constantly changing media environment,” explains the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism in an analysis of how newsrooms use viewer metrics. “No one can take their audience for granted. The battle for attention is a central challenge for journalism because its public role is premised on connecting with an audience....”

Even when working properly, Facebook’s News Feed can help make or break the success of media companies. Using a mysterious algorithm, Facebook chooses which stories come up in your News Feed and ranks them in what it believes to be “the precise order of how likely you are to find each post worthwhile,” explains Slate’s Will Oremus.

Some skeptics write off the algorithm as arbitrary, but its success in bringing websites such as Buzzfeed or Vox to fame can’t be underestimated, Mr. Oremus wrote.

But inaccurate metrics are not the only topic of contention between the social media site and traditional news sites. 

Friday’s announcement comes one day after Facebook announced a plan for reducing the proliferation of fake news on the site, an issue that chief executive Mark Zuckerberg has thus far been hesitant to address.

“We believe in giving people a voice and that we cannot become arbiters of truth ourselves, so we’re approaching this problem carefully,” Adam Mosseri, the vice president of Facebook’s News Feed, wrote in a blog post. “We’ve focused our efforts on the worst of the worst, on the clear hoaxes spread by spammers for their own gain, and on engaging both our community and third party organizations.”

Facebook users will soon be able to report a post as fake news, and the company will begin working with third-party fact-checkers. Stories they identify as fake will be flagged with a notice, and may appear lower in users' news feeds, according to the company's post.

Mr. Mosseri added: “We’re always looking to improve News Feeds by listening to what the community is telling us.”