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Facebook Rolls Out Its News Feature


This was an eventful week for Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. He was grilled by members of Congress about Facebook's proposed cryptocurrency, Libra, as well as the company's decision to not fact-check political advertisements. Here he is being questioned by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat from New York.


ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: Would I be able to run advertisements on Facebook targeting Republicans in primaries saying that they voted for the Green New Deal? I mean, you're not fact-checking political advertising, I'm trying to understand the bounds here, what's fair game.

MARK ZUCKERBERG: Congresswoman, I don't know the answer to that off the top of my head. I think...

OCASIO-CORTEZ: So you don't know if I'll be able to do that.

ZUCKERBERG: I think probably.

OCASIO-CORTEZ: Do you see a potential problem here with a complete lack of fact-checking on political advertisements?

ZUCKERBERG: Well, Congresswoman, I think lying is bad. And I think if you were to run an ad that had a lie, that would be bad. That's different from it being from our position the right thing to do to prevent your constituents, your people in an election, from seeing that you lied.

OCASIO-CORTEZ: So we can - so you won't take down lies, or you will take down lies? I think it's just a pretty simple yes or no.

MARTIN: Then, two days later, the company announced a new test feature on its mobile app called Facebook News. It pulls content from roughly 200 publishers. And the company is paying some of those outlets for their content, including NPR.

We wanted to talk more about this, so we've called Ken Doctor. He is a news industry analyst and consultant as well as a regular contributor to Nieman Lab. That's a Harvard affiliate that studies the future of journalism in the age of the Internet. Ken Doctor, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

KEN DOCTOR: Quite welcome.

MARTIN: And regular listeners know this, but we want to mention again that Facebook is among NPR's recent financial supporters. And, as we said, it's one of the news outlets that will be featured in Facebook's News tab. So could you just start by describing what the News tab looks like? What will users be seeing?

DOCTOR: Sure. People are going to be pretty familiar with it. On our phones - and this is for phones only right now, not on the web - it's basically the news of the day. They call it top stories. There are health, science and tech, sports, news, business categories. The brand of the news, whether it's NPR or Bloomberg, is pretty clear. And then you have some settings. And the settings are interesting. If you want to hide a publisher, you can do that. And if you have subscriptions to any of these publications, there's a way to note that within the app.

MARTIN: Do we know which outlets are being highlighted? And do we know how the news is being curated?

DOCTOR: We don't. It's essentially a black box of how the decisions are being made. And Mark Zuckerberg talked on stage yesterday and said, basically, yeah, we'll have humans involved. But it's the normal dance we've seen of humans and algorithms. And I think this could open Facebook up once again to essentially walking into political quicksand because decisions have to be made of what's going to fit on that little screen. It's gotten them in trouble before.

MARTIN: Well, and then to that point, though, it has been reported that one of the outlets that they are allowing on this site is Breitbart, which is a far-right...


MARTIN: ...Site described by its founder, Steve Bannon, as a platform for the white nationalist alt right, to be one of the featured news outlets on the platform. And it's no secret that Breitbart traffics in the kind of hyped-up, racially inflammatory storytelling that ethical news organizations have been trying to avoid for decades now, like making - for example, making a point of highlighting crimes by immigrants or people of color while ignoring...

DOCTOR: Right.

MARTIN: ...Or downplaying, you know, crimes by white people. So the question is, how do they square that? I mean, Campbell Brown in her statement - she's the former CNN journalist and vice president for global news partnerships, and she says in her statement that when news is deeply reported and well sourced, it gives people information they can rely on. How do they square those standards?

DOCTOR: Publicly, they don't. In fact, Zuckerberg was asked that question on stage and basically said, I'm not going to talk about how we decide on individual outlets or not. Clearly - and they're not going to say it - this is a political accommodation. They know that if they don't include some sites that will satisfy people who have been political enemies of Facebook, it's going to get them in deeper trouble.

MARTIN: And what about the news organizations that - other news organizations that are featured on the...


MARTIN: ...On the site? Do you have a sense of why this is important to them?

DOCTOR: It's very simple. It's money, and it is traffic. So if you look at this in broad strokes, the American newspaper industry, the daily industry, is making $30 billion a year less now than it did 12, 14 years ago. That's largely lost advertising. And largely, that advertising has gone to Facebook and Google and now Amazon. So they need the money. Facebook for the first time is paying significant - but not substantial - significant money to publishers. The question now isn't whether Facebook will pay them. The question is how much it will pay them. So they see this as an opening to get even more as we get into the 2020s.

MARTIN: So just again to sort of put these two ideas together, earlier this month, Trump's re-election campaign ran an ad on Facebook with false information accusing Vice President Biden of blackmailing Ukrainian officials to end an investigation of his son Hunter. There is no evidence that this ever occurred. But Facebook refused to remove the ad, citing their policy not to fact-check politicians' speech. So taking these two stories together, Facebook is basically asking users to trust them to curate their news, but they won't monitor political actors who are known to be spreading falsehoods. How do they square that?

DOCTOR: Well, they tend to avoid the question because it's a very hard question. Journalism companies have rules in place about how they monitor advertising and what's within the lines and what's outside the line. A company like Facebook really doesn't have that DNA, doesn't know how to do that. And, of course, they want as much advertising money as they can get. There is still a deer-in-the-headlights kind of look to Facebook when it says, we're a news company. We have a News tab when, in fact, it doesn't know how to operate as the companies that have operated for decades have figured this out in terms of trying to separate truth from falsehood in ways that the public says, yeah, that makes sense to me.

MARTIN: That's Ken Doctor. He's a regular contributing writer to Nieman Lab. That's an arm of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University.

Ken Doctor, thanks so much for joining us once again.

DOCTOR: Quite welcome. Good to be on.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: We incorrectly say in this report that Steve Bannon is the founder of Breitbart. He is actually its former executive chairman.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: October 27, 2019 at 12:00 AM EDT
We incorrectly say in this report that Steve Bannon is the founder of Breitbart. He is actually its former executive chairman.