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Twitter vs. Facebook as a news source: Ferguson shows the downsides of an algorithmic filter

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While Twitter has been alive with breaking news about the events in Ferguson, Mo. after the shooting of an unarmed black man — video clips posted by participants, live-tweeting the arrest of journalists, and so on — many users say Facebook has been largely silent on the topic, with more info about ice-bucket challenges by various celebrities. Is this a sign of a fundamental difference between the two platforms? In a sense, yes. But it’s also a testament to the power of the algorithms that Facebook uses to filter what we see in our newsfeeds, and that has some potentially serious social implications.

Part of the reason why Twitter is more news-focused than Facebook has to do with the underlying mechanics of both sites, and the way user behavior has evolved as a result. Because of its brevity, and the ease with which updates can be shared, Twitter is a much more rapid-fire experience than Facebook, and that makes it well suited for quick blasts of information during a breaking-news event like Ferguson.

Flaws in the symmetrical follow model

Facebook has tried to emulate some of those aspects of Twitter, with the real-time activity feed that sits off to the right of the main newsfeed and shows you when someone has liked a post, or what they are listening to on Spotify, etc.. But even with that, it’s more difficult to follow a quickly-evolving news story easily. And while Twitter has added embedded images and other Facebook-style features over the past year or so, Facebook is still filled with a lot more content that makes it difficult to process a lot of information quickly.

Then there’s the nature of the community: although Facebook has tried to embrace Twitter-style following, which allows users to see updates from others even if they aren’t friends, in most cases people still use the platform the way it was originally designed — in other words, with a symmetrical follow model that requires two people to agree that they are friends before they can see each others’ updates. On Twitter, users decide to follow whomever they wish, and in most cases don’t have to ask for permission (unless someone has protected their account).

As tech-blogger Robert Scoble argued during a debate with Anthony De Rosa of Circa, there are ways to fine-tune your Facebook feed so that it becomes more of a news platform. Like Twitter, Facebook allows users to create topic-driven lists, but the site doesn’t spend much time promoting them, and they are difficult to manage (to be fair, Twitter doesn’t make its lists very prominent or easy to use either). Facebook has also tried to become more of a news source via the Newswire it launched along with Storyful earlier this year, and product manager Mike Hudack says the site is working on other ways of surfacing news better.

Better for friendships than news

In the end, Facebook’s model may be better suited for creating a network of actual friends and close relationships, and for keeping the conversation civil, but it isn’t nearly as conducive to following a breaking-news story like Ferguson, unless you have taken the time to construct lists of sources you follow for just such an occasion. And then there’s the other aspect of the Facebook environment that makes it more problematic as a news source: namely, the fact that Facebook’s newsfeed is filtered by the site’s powerful ranking algorithms.

As University of North Carolina sociologist Zeynep Tufekci pointed out in a recent piece on Medium, the Facebook algorithm makes it less likely we will see news like Ferguson, for a number of reasons. One is that the newsfeed is filtered based on our past activity — the things we have clicked “like” on, the things we have chosen to comment on or share, and so on. That keeps the newsfeed more relevant (or so Facebook would no doubt argue) but it makes it substantially less likely that a sudden or surprising event like Ferguson will make its way past the filters:

“I wonder: what if Ferguson had started to bubble, but there was no Twitter to catch on nationally? Would it ever make it through the algorithmic filtering on Facebook? Maybe, but with no transparency to the decisions, I cannot be sure. Would Ferguson be buried in algorithmic censorship?”

A technical issue but also a social one

As the term “algorithmic censorship” implies, Tufekci sees this kind of filtering as a societal issue as well as a technical one, since it helps determine which topics we see as important and which we ignore — and David Holmes at Pando Daily has pointed out that if Twitter implements a similar kind of algorithm-driven filtering, which it is rumored to be considering as a way of improving user engagement, Twitter may also lose some of its strength as a news source.

In a sense, Facebook has become like a digital version of a newspaper, an information gatekeeper that dispenses the news it believes users or readers need to know, rather than allowing those readers to decide for themselves. Instead of a team of little-known editors who decide which uprisings to pay attention to and which to ignore, Facebook uses an algorithm whose inner-workings are a mystery. Theoretically, the newsfeed ranking is determined according to the desires of its users, but there’s no real way to confirm that this is true.

In the end, we all have to choose the news sources that we trust and the ones that work for us in whatever way we decide is important. And if we choose Facebook, that means we will likely miss certain things as a result of the filtering algorithm — things we may not even realize we are missing — unless the network changes the way it handles breaking news events like Ferguson.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Thinkstock / Oleksiy Mark

21 Responses to “Twitter vs. Facebook as a news source: Ferguson shows the downsides of an algorithmic filter”

  1. I’ve chosen Facebook over Twitter (sticking to a network of friends and keeping the conversation civil are indeed the reasons for that) but am very keen to get some insight into what’s going on in Ferguson and use other info sources to keep up to date. I deplore the lack of Ferguson-related conversations in many different circles, not just on Facebook and have tried initiating it on a number of occasions.

  2. Gregory R. Norfleet

    If reporters remember the fundamentals of their job, in this case, working with trusted sources and checking information before publication, their media outlets’ reputations will remain solid.
    It is worth the time for reporters to find key people to “follow” or “friend.” It’s like having an army of eyes and ears feeding information to you. Just remember who is trained to turn around and disseminate it.

  3. The tweet about about Facebook being an epic fail for news got me thinking. Facebook is filled with user-generated content and what this means is what we see is based on the kinds of content people we’ve “friended” or sources we “follow”. If most of my Facebook friends are the kinds of people that just post memes or send game invites, no matter what Facebook’s algorithm is, I’m probably not going to find breaking news. Facebook is only as good as the people we choose to associate with there. Same with Twitter, I suppose. But I agree with the notion that Facebook is more about friendships. Twitter, for me, has always been the tool I use for professional development and it just happened that that’s also where I see a lot of breaking news. For me, there are smarter, more informed citizens on my Twitter “following” list than on Facebook. I mean no disrespect to Facebook or “my Facebook people” (there’s a lot of overlap), but I just get the more enriching stuff on Twitter. So I guess this a long-winded way of saying that it’s not really Facebook’s job to deliver the news per se; it’s just a matter of what Facebook users share and how they use the platform. Everyone’s end experience is different. In the end, Facebook and Twitter are places to find out that something just happened — whether devastating or cool — and then I think it’s up to the person to find out more details from a reliable reporting source. Twitter is headlines, the full story can be found elsewhere. I see so much of this, especially on Facebook; people will comment on a story with only seeing the headline. It’s not the how we hear about the news that scares me. It’s that media literacy is the problem! Scanning headlines doesn’t make you informed. :) (Granted, who has the time to be informed about everything?!)

  4. Deborah Tutnauer

    Facebook’s algorithm feels more and more like censorship and big brother. It’s a fun place to see friends and family but not much good for world events, nor much for marketing these days either. Twitter wins this one.

  5. Jerrycat

    For heaven’s sake, why on earth would Facebook have to be a news source??? I’m not there for news, I’m there to connect with people! I have other places that are news sources. On FB, I want to see what my friends are posting – leave me alone with that news nonsense!

    • I am not Mr. Nullz, but I noticed that too. I didn’t really think about it until YOU pointed it out. Thank you!

      Breaking news is NOT 90% inaccurate and wrong, regardless of how one defines “breaking news”. Even including Twitter (I don’t have a Facebook account), breaking news is closer to 70% (maybe even 90%) accurate and correct before discounting due to media bias. Media bias is a separate issue. Also, it is dependent on my choices as an individual, e.g. reading HuffPo and WaPo versus Reuters and WSJ.

  6. skyshoes

    I have a “fun” Facebook page relating to a fun sport that I have been in business for decades. I have on occasion tagged an important story that might relate to the fun sport. It sets certain ‘bookers off. They lecture me, they demand that I stop immediately posting anything relating to their health and welfare. I have had right leaning fanatics try to form boycotts against my business on my own page. For so many Facebook is the kitty-in-the-lap, only-tell-me-I-am -strong/bold/pretty-mom neurotics hiding from the big churning mess outside their locked door.

    Algorithms are the drab control feature of computing. They can be useful or a lazy person’s SISO (SH* in SH* out).

    Just trying to get all the puppet shows and Disney garbage off your Netflix account after a visit from an eight year old on your account is living proof. The Facebook nerds know their market. The Twitter crowd is the short blunt concise friend you have that 90% of the time you can’t make out what they are talking about. On Twitter it often takes clicking on three or four subsequent links to discern the cryptic blurb. Oh sorry I might have gone over my 140 limi

  7. Corine Judkins

    It really doesn’t even need to change how it handles breaking news events. It simply has to give me the option of viewing my newsfeed in straight chronological order without changes.

    • Joe Thornhill

      This seems like an absolute no brainer to me as well. Why wouldn’t facebook provide you the option to spend more time on their site and see everything. Just the same, if I’ve had a busy day or week why doesn’t twitter take everything it knows about me and give me a feed where I can see the tweets that generated the most engagement if I’m pressed for time.

  8. Kathy E Gill

    Twitter can provide an open source, “many eyes” approach to breaking news. As such, it can help elevate information, information that might be missed due to traditional gatekeepers or algorithmic ones.

    For example, last year Twitter allowed the world to watch the Texas legislature debate an anti-abortion — to protest the website timestamp that indicated the vote took place past midnight (the session ended at midnight) — to put pressure on political leadership to step back from a claim that the bill passed.

    This role is not unlike that played by blogs in Trent Lott’s infamous Strom Thurmond speech, the one that lead to Lott’s stepping down from Senate leadership.

  9. JM Palacios

    Talking about whether Ferguson would show up in your Facebook news feed if Twitter weren’t around is irrelevant. If it weren’t for Twitter, Facebook wouldn’t have a news feed. I remember when you had to actually visit someone’s wall to see what they were up to and send them a message. Today’s Facebook is not the same. I deactivated my account last week.

  10. Stephanie Ivy

    While it is possible to curate Facebook to show more news, the downside of that is that it will show you fewer personal posts (based on that behavior). Which is a problem if you, like most people, happen to care about the world around you AND your personal community.

    Twitter at least gives you tools that allow you to track multiple spheres of interest and browse them either as discrete pools of info or one firehose of updates.

  11. The problem with such quick response to reporting on the scene is how the emotions of a groups of people can be swayed by what is posted.

    These snippet videographers are not attempting to provide any type of details or alternate points of views. Their only mission is in attempting to be the first to report, not knowing that what they post inflames a group on the scene causing panic and or distrust.

    The need for detailed reporting is essential, because none of the quick to show videographers will be returning in 12-months to detail the recovery or show how many business returns or have re-open.

    These snippets of so call news bites are just like hatred and prejudice, in that both only provide bits of information and not providing a true understand the issues.

  12. Marvin Mitchell

    Neither platform can ever be a “be all” reliable news source, and neither should they be, because they were not designed to be such. One should get their news from a reliable news source generated by a professional news person, and not from a “friend” who is reporting something that he/she heard.

  13. Devon Nullz

    Breaking news is almost 90% inaccurate and wrong. There’s this love of getting the story first. I just want the story RIGHT and can wait it out.

    Neither Twitter nor Facebook satisfy that need for me.

    • Television and radio news suffer from the same problem. AP news wire is better, but rushes to be first too.

      Printed newspapers are the best, if you want accuracy and are willing to wait a few hours. Wall Street Journal online and sometimes Fox News are good too!

      • Digital or printed is not the problem. The problem is about the media company strategy and the journalist.

        In France, a media called Mediapart has choosen some years ago not to depend on advertising to live. Now, it earns money and their articles are deep, searched, excellent. Because they have time to write, to search, …

        They don’t are running for publishing a news before the other. Courrier International is in the same way but in a paper format.

        Format is not the problem. It’s all about people.