Facebook is drawing some criticism for recommending questionable content to users with its "related articles" algorithm. Given the company's recent focus on becoming a news provider, that's not a good thing.
In December, Facebook began displaying sets of articles under some stories in the News Feed. This is what they looked like back then.
In this example, it says "More from the Atlantic and other sites".
Facebook has since made additional changes to the News Feed, including to the actual design. These days, the feature says "Related Articles".
It's not a bad feature in theory, but in execution, there seem to be some issues.
The Boston Globe published an article last weekend discussing some false reporting that Facebook was surfacing in this feature. Examples given include some about the Obamas. Someone clicked a legitimate article about Michelle Obama meeting with a little girl whose father was jobless. The "related articles" feature offered up a fake report about a Secret Service officer finding the president and first lady copulating in the Oval Office.
The story appears to be this one from The News Nerd, a satire site, which features the disclaimer, "The stories posted on TheNewsNerd are for entertainment purposes only. The stories may mimc articles found in the headlines, but rest assured they are purely satirical."
Even some readers commenting on the article don't seem to be understanding that they're on a fake news site. I wonder how many of them came from Facebook.
But a satire site is a satire site. Nobody's slamming such sites for doing what they do. But when people are directed at such a site that they're not familiar with (and this one certainly isn't as well known as The Onion), expecting a new story, they may not get the joke. As the Globe notes, the problem is more when Facebook points them to content that is more subtle in being false. False info doesn't always come in the form of humor or entertainment. Sometimes it comes in the form of propaganda or simply a source that just isn't credible.
And as far as satire goes, Google News labels a site like The Onion as such. Even if you're not familiar with the site, you know what you're getting into.
When asked about it, Facebook blamed its algorithms, which don't bother to verify content, and apparently don't have much in the way of standards for sites that are eligible for inclusion in this feature, which appears frequently on users' News Feeds. The report quotes a company spokesperson:
“These news feed units are designed to surface popular links that people are sharing on Facebook,” Facebook spokesman Jessie Baker said via e-mail. “We don’t make any judgment about whether the content of these links are true or false, just as we don’t make any judgment about whether the content of your status updates are true or false.” Emphasis added.
Yet this is strange given Facebook's aforementioned focus on being a new provider, especially when you consider recent changes it has made to its general News Feed ranking algorithm, which is supposed to give more weight to quality.
It's also interesting that Facebook is choosing to show people more content from Pages that they don't necessarily like as it all but kills organic reach for Pages that users actually do like, even as users, in general, are liking more Pages over all.
Facebook also recently started surfacing content in users' News Feeds from unliked pages when when they’re about things that you have liked. For example, if you like Dwight Howard on Facebook, it might choose to show you a Bleacher Report article about Dwight Howard, even if you don't like Bleacher Report.
It's unclear what kind of quality standards are implemented on this feature.
Hopefully Facebook will start taking quality of recommendations as seriously as it takes other types of news content it provides users.
Last month, the company launched FB Newswire for Journalists. This comes from a partnership with Storyful, which verifies the credibility of the content being shared. Strangely enough, journalists are typically the ones that are supposed to verify things anyway - more so than average users who are just browsing the "news" that Facebook is feeding them.
Either way, it's just another example illustrating why people need to be more diligent in their own news consumption habits.
Images via Facebook