Facebook is tackling false news on its platform by taking away the financial incentives for those who create such content, says Campbell Brown, Facebook’s Head of Global News Partnerships. Facebook has been grappling with the problem of false, motivated and agenda-driven content across countries over the past few years and has now embarked on a “multi-pronged strategy” to clean up the news feeds of its users.
“Most of the false news is financially motivated. So what we have done is disrupt the financial incentives,” Brown tells indianexpress.com, adding that this was very similar to how email spammers were tackled in the past. So anything that is marked as false news gets deranked along with the pages that push such content. “We found a great deal of success by cutting off their ability to make money,” she says, but not before adding that it would be wrong to expect that the problem would entirely go away. Facebook, Brown says, has also become “much better at identifying fake accounts and removing them”.
“Our machine learning around this has gotten to a point where we can detect most in the fake accounts within a minute,” she explains.
Having burnt its fingers with the US elections in 2016, the world’s largest social media platform now takes this aspect very seriously. Brown says in India, for instance, Facebook will partner with third-party fact-checkers like BoomLive. “When something gets flagged on the platform that people think is false, or misinformation, they will fact check the piece of information,” she says, adding how such content is downranked massively and its overall reach reduced. In the process, the fact checkers also help improve the machine learning capabilities of the platform. “We are optimistic that we have the right tools for what’s coming.”
How Facebook is cleaning up user timelines
If your Facebook timeline has been looking much different over the past few months, especially with less news posts, that is because a lot of changes are being incorporated there as well. “Instead of engagement, which was kind of how we thought about it previously, we now focus on what we characterise as meaningful social interaction,” she says. So this means friends and family will get priority over everything else in your newsfeed.
“We found there was so much content just being put on the platform from other sources, and not just news and entertainment, cat videos, sports, when you name it, that it was crowding out the friends and family sharing,” she adds. In a bid to bring this back, there has been an “overall reduction in public content on the platform”, Brown says, adding how it “was a correction that the company needed to make to ensure that friends and family sharing is, first and foremost, what’s happening on our platform.”
But would this mean losing out on high quality news on the platform? Brown says the attempt now is to push quality over quantity and develop signals that identify quality news sources. She calls this is a job in progress and something that is really hard to do. “Because if I asked a roomful of people what’s the definition of quality, you get a whole lot of different answers,” she reasons, adding how the attempt is to look at news organisations that are broadly trusted by surveys of the community. “So these are organisations that people trust, even if they may not align politically with that.” The other signals are news which is informative for the user and then local sources.
“But they are just signals. Yeah, one of many, many, signals that go into determining what appears in a person’s newsfeed.”
There is also the Facebook Journalism Project where the social network is trying to develop the products more collaboratively with publishers, “so that their input is there from the beginning, all the way through the process”.
Facebook Watch as destination for news
Brown also talks about Facebook’s newly launched Watch becoming a destination for news, something which the social network has never had. “One of the problems that we’ve had in the past is if there is a big breaking news moment our users don’t know where to go. As it is serendipitous, there is not clear destination for news on Facebook… for video at least Watch will become that,” Brown says, again underlining how this will be a video-only destination. But she is clear that Facebook’s goal is not to replace TV. Holding up her phone, Brown reiterates that she’s looking at the smaller screen.
“I have spent my most of my adult life as a working journalists and I care deeply about the future of journalism, and making sure that news organizations not only survive, but thrive. I think democracy depends on a thriving, you know, community of journalist. So that’s my motivation,” says Brown, who has been an active journalist, mostly in television, for well over two decades.
“In terms of my role, I think of myself as an advocate for publishers within the company. And, and I spend most of my time sitting down with publishers. And that’s why I’m here,” says Brown, who might well be the most powerful news editor in the world if you consider that Facebook as over 2.2 billion users now. Brown says her India trip has been spent listening to publishers, getting their feedback on product development, training, what we’re doing right what we’re doing wrong.
But in a world where, thanks to Facebook, everyone is a journalist of sorts, posting all types of information and opinion on their timelines, does Brown want to play the editor? “Well, it’s not to me, there is a difference between a journalist and just someone posting,” she says, clarifying that users can say things on Facebook that are wrong, that are inaccurate, as long as it sticks to community standards and doesn’t endanger anyone.