Facebook’s about-face on news credibility

Rather than rely on machines to pick items for its news feed, the media giant will now trust its users to select trustworthy media outlets. The move reflects a broader need to restore trust in news by relying on readers as truth seekers.

AP Photo/file
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg meets entrepreneurs and innovators in St. Louis. Facebook said Jan. 19 that it will survey users about how familiar they are with a news source and if they trust it.

Artificial intelligence, or AI, is called artificial for a good reason. Facebook made that point last week by ending its attempt to rely heavily on software algorithms to select news items for its 2 billion users. It announced Jan. 19 that the Facebook “community” will be asked to rank news outlets by their trustworthiness.

This reader feedback will promote “high quality news that helps build a sense of common ground” in a world with “so much division,” said chief executive Mark Zuckerberg. The first surveys have started in the United States and will soon expand to other countries. The company plans to include the local news outlets of users in its surveys.

Like many digital platforms that act as news providers, Facebook had great faith in a belief that programmed electrons in computer servers can discern qualities of thought such as trust, fairness, and honesty. Even in respected newsrooms, however, these traits of character require constant upkeep among journalists and, yes, feedback from paying customers. Good judgment on news relies on orders of consciousness beyond what a machine can do.

Rather than move toward becoming a hands-on gatekeeper of news, Facebook now hopes its “diverse and representative” sampling of users can lead to a ranking of news outlets – and that would bring a measure of objectivity in its news feed.

The company may be in the news business but it has chosen to outsource news credibility to the collective wisdom of individuals and their ability to distinguish truth from falsehood.

In other words, if people choose to be self-governing, they will also demand accurate knowledge from media.

By placing its trust in people as seekers of truth, Facebook could earn greater trust from its users. This is a lesson for many companies, especially digital platforms or those in the media business. According to the latest survey of trust in institutions worldwide by Edelman communications firm, “media has become the least-trusted institution for the first time,” more so than other businesses or government.

Edelman’s survey of 28 countries also offers this insight: “A majority of respondents believe that news organizations are overly focused on attracting large audiences (66 percent), breaking news (65 percent), and politics (59 percent).”

In particular, the US is “enduring an unprecedented crisis of trust” among many of its institutions, says Richard Edelman, president and CEO of Edelman. “The root cause of this fall is the lack of objective facts and rational discourse,” he adds.

Facebook’s shift away from computer-driven news selection is a welcome step toward restoring trust in the overall business of news. This is not a new problem. “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper,” wrote Thomas Jefferson in 1807. Yet the Digital Age has forced the issue of trust for news providers. By inviting readers to participate in solving this problem, Facebook has itself set a new bar for earning trust.

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