At Facebook, the algorithm is everything. What you see is determined by an algorithm, and what you do with that content in turn feeds that algorithm. That's how Facebook figures out how to monetize your engagement.
The problem with the algorithm is that it isn't designed to find the best content, but rather the content you are most likely to click on or share or 'like.' The result is that sensational content is amplified, regardless of whether it's what you would otherwise have looked for. That's especially true when it comes to news.
Today, however, Facebook thinks it has devised a solution. The world's largest social network is testing a feature that adds a 'News' tab to the mobile app, which includes a curated collection of content from publishers that have partnered with Facebook. Those sources will receive payment for their content, in some cases millions of dollars annually.
Facebook has been working with publishers to alleviate the ongoing complaint that the algorithm amplifies, and in many ways monetizes their content without paying them for it. In fact, Facebook directly benefits from news content shared on the site since it creates engagement, which serves the algorithm and leads to monetization, often at the expense of the publisher. Mark Zuckerberg admits as much in an op-ed in The New York Times.
"When ads started moving from print newspapers to websites, the economics of news changed," writes Zuckerberg. Translation: Facebook makes a lot of money off your content, and we know newspapers, magazines, and websites aren't super happy about that.
So now, Facebook is hiring a team of journalists, headed by former CNN reporter Cambell Brown, to surface what it considers high-quality news in a range of coverage areas. What a user actually sees in the News section will still be influenced by the algorithm, but will be based on human selection of stories.
I think Facebook is trying to overcome the onslaught of "fake news" by adding a human filter, but honestly, doesn't Facebook know that it already has a reputation for supressing certain types of content and viewpoints? Now, that's literally what it will be doing. It will literally be deciding what constitutes news because everytime you choose to highlight one story, you're automatically choosing a winner over something else that loses.
And while the winners are outlets like The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and CNN, smaller publishers who report local stories are undeniably the losers in this case. Which is ironic, because while most people get their "news" from major outlets, the stories that often matter most to their actual lives are the ones being reported by local publishers.
And it's those smaller publishers that will be hit the hardest by the changes in the "economics of news," that Zuckerberg mentions. Those publishers will still see their content shared by users in the regular feed, meaning it will still benefit Facebook by driving engagement, but they won't be compensated.
In that sense, Facebook is absolutely now in the news business. The company already has a substantial trust deficit as a result of its role in helping to spread divisive and misleading content. Now, instead of fixing that problem, it's simply creating a separate section where it will decide what users should see based on what it thinks is news.
The only question is whether this is actually good news.