Can Facebook save journalism and bring it into the digital age?

12 Jan 2017

Can Facebook really save journalism and at the same time, tackle the scourge of fake news? Image: Stokkete/Shutterstock

Facebook is trying to teach journalists how to thrive in the digital age while also tackling the scourge of fake news. The key lies in helping users tell the difference between truth and lie.

As self-proclaimed authorities on everything specialised, generalists – or (ahem) journalists – don’t like being told how to suck eggs.

But at the same time, those in the media who owe their longevity to being adaptable and rolling with the changes actually relish every opportunity to learn new things. And that’s a metaphor for any profession or trade to thrive in the 21st century.

‘Education, not just algorithms, critical thinking and helping people know the difference between truth and lie will be key to the future of media’

Yesterday, Facebook introduced what it calls The Facebook Journalism Project, a new kind of platform designed to create a healthy news ecosystem where journalism can thrive.

The project aims to work in three ways: creating news products; training and tools for journalists; and training and tools for everyone else who uses Facebook.

In terms of news products, Facebook is finally realising that it is now the front page of the internet and people are using their phones and computers to get news rather than buying newspapers.

In essence, Facebook is part of the problem facing the news industry but it finally recognises that it is also part of the solution.

The social network plans to forge deeper collaborations with news organisations and equip journalists with new storytelling tools that are already beginning to proliferate, such as Live Video, Instant Articles and more.

The Local News component is vital because all real journalism careers start with local news; it is where you can gauge the beating heart of the community and join the conversation on issues that matter the most to people. Once again, Facebook is the front page now more than ever for local news in communities all over the world.

Where hacker culture meets hack culture

Where the journalism project could get tricky, however, is where Facebook intends to mix engineering with journalism through efforts like hackathons, which culturally, could be a little like mixing oil with water. But if the engine can be fine-tuned, it is worth trying.

The future of journalism could, for example, require journalists and data scientists or software developers collaborating to tell stories through data visualisation.

Facebook also intends to provide training and tools for journalists through e-learning courses that are certifiable as well as training at scale for newsrooms through collaborations with various colleges in the US.

It also intends to release new tools to help journalists and editors surface stories, measure performance and identify influencers.

“We’ve seen that journalists are using Facebook Live to find and share news, and connect with their audiences,” explained Fidji Simo, director of product at Facebook.

“We’re now building more tools to help journalists use Live to report and discover news as easily as possible. Today, we’re launching the ability for page administrators to designate specific journalists as contributors, giving them the ability to go live on behalf of the page – a change designed to make such reporting more flexible for newsrooms. In the future, we also want to bring to profiles all the flexibility that the Live API provides to pages, so journalists can use their professional equipment to go live. And we’re now going to offer journalists a simple way to see how their public videos are performing on their Facebook profiles.”

Facebook is also recognising the rise of citizen journalism and the fact that everyone is carrying smartphones, which can capture important news events through what it calls “eyewitness media”.

The social network is a member of the First Draft Partner Network, a coalition of platforms and more than 80 publishers that works together to provide practical and ethical guidance in how to find, verify and publish content sourced from the social web.

‘Supporting an entire industry that is engineered to help people think, while killing the weeds that suffocate free and critical thought, won’t be easy’

The scourge of fake news requires a special focus

The fake news issue that arose in the wake of the US presidential elections was a wake-up call, not only for Facebook, but for every user to think critically about what appears in their News Feed.

Mark Zuckerberg’s initial dismissal of suggestions that fake news could in any way have influenced voters as “a pretty crazy idea” prompted a backlash within Facebook, mostly from engineers, who realise and appreciate the cultural footprint that the social network is making.

From denial to acceptance and then action, the new measures correctly assume that for journalism to thrive on the 1.6bn-strong social network, it requires training for everyone, not just media.

This involves promoting greater news literacy among ordinary users to help them identify sources of information that they can trust.

As part of Facebook’s efforts to combat fake news, the company recently said it is testing a new notification and reporting system designed to tackle fake news websites.

Facebook said it is working with third-party fact-checking organisations that are signatories of Poynter’s International Fact-Checking Code of Principles to identify hoaxes on Facebook.

The fact that Facebook is reacting fast to the reality that it is, in effect, the front page of news for the world, but also that News Feed content is being manipulated by people with questionable motives, is to be lauded.

But supporting an entire industry that is engineered to help people think, while killing the weeds that suffocate free and critical thought, won’t be easy.

There is a distinct difference between helping an entire industry based on truth and accuracy to flourish with new technologies and tools, and tackling the scourge of fake news by shady, unscrupulous players. These are two sets of problems that require an equally energetic response in every respect.

Media workers take their profession seriously; they work hard to establish the facts, and the reason a free press exists in the western world in the first place is to establish the truth, defend ordinary people, surface wrongdoing and hold people in positions of power to account.

The digital age is tearing up the traditional business models, while journalists are swimming hard with and against the tide to equip themselves with the knowledge and skills to transform and stay relevant to their audiences.

Any help Facebook can give in this regard should be welcomed.

But then there is, of course, the biased media who operate on behalf of the various shades of the political spectrum as well as publishers with their own view of the world and how it should be run.

And now there is this new scourge: fake news players who exist to peddle untrue news stories, simply to create a reaction and glean advertising.

The solution lies not only in robust tools and verification processes, but in educating ordinary users in how to tell the difference between truth and lie.

This, however, won’t be easy, because people move in tribes and some prefer to believe what they want to believe based on their biases or experiences.

Education, not just algorithms, critical thinking and helping people know the difference between truth and lie will be key to the future of media.

That is where Facebook can really play a role.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years