Facebook Tests Alternative News Feed, Publisher Tools

Stung by a wave of criticism over Facebook’s alleged role creating ideological “filter bubbles” and enabling distribution of fake news, the world’s largest social network is testing new products meant to help remedy these shortcomings – although it remains to be seen how effective some of these measures will be.

The first new feature, currently being tested with a select group of users, is an alternative news feed represented by a “rocket ship,” which began appearing on Facebook pages beneath the search bar with no fanfare (or explanation or anything) sometime in the last few days.

Called “Explore” in a previous test, the alternative news feed serves up content including pictures and video from sources that the user isn’t already following, based in part on their own preferences as well as the content viewed by their friends.

The rocket icon seems like an attempt to find a middle way between what I will call “total bubble,” in which the user is totally isolated from new content because they only receive content they signed up for, and “total chaos,” in which the user is left facing an undifferentiated sea of content with no pre-selection at all (making it impossible to navigate).

One obvious potential pitfall is that any algorithm based on content consumed by the user’s own friends, as well as their own preferences, will simply create a somewhat larger ideological filter bubble, folding in new sources but still providing no real exposure to markedly different points of view.

That’s better than nothing, of course, but the fact is Facebook may not be able to widen users’ horizons beyond a certain point without upsetting them.

Indeed it may behoove all the experts, pundits, and commentators to seriously address the question of whether people really want to leave their filter bubbles.

After all these bubbles didn’t form by accident, but are rather the result of conscious acts of curation by individual users over time, selecting news from sources that align with their worldview.

The flip side of this is that in the current ideological environment, many people on both sides find reporting or opinion they disagree with not only incorrect or inaccurate but “offensive” – meaning something they don’t even want to see.

Facebook is also introducing new tools for publishers using technology created by CrowdTangle Intelligence, a social media analytics outfit acquired by the social media giant last year.

The tools allow publishers to track the performance of their content within different social media apps, including Facebook and Instagram, as well as non-Facebook properties like Twitter and Reddit.

Among other things publishers can determine which social channels, accounts and types of content are producing the most engagement, which should help guide strategic decisions ranging from editorial planning to distribution and promotion.

This, in turn, may give legitimate publishers a leg up as they compete with producers of fake news, who have exceled at determining precisely what kind of content will resonate with their online audiences (and enjoy the additional advantage of being unconstrained by reality).

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