Michael Dalder / Reuters

Facebook exec targets media, journalists return fire

'Rant' by Facebook employee stirs up reporters frustrated by social media algorithms

A Facebook advertising executive and a number of irked journalists had a heart-to-heart on the social media giant’s website Thursday, after the former sounded off on the state of journalism. The ensuing back-and-forth in the comment thread revealed a simmering tension between news and social media. 

In his 500-word critique, Mike Hudack, Facebook's director of product, bemoaned the quality of written journalism and argued that television news was now more obsessed with ratings than providing real analysis of significant stories.

As more people get their news from their Facebook feed, the site has become a major arbiter of how people view the world and participate in public life. With this power to control how people see their work, Facebook's top-secret algorithm frustrates many journalists, who say it undervalues hard-hitting news.

What set off Hudack's "rant" was an article trending on Vox about cleaning jeans by freezing them. He said he’d hoped for more from Vox, a news startup.

“The jeans story is their most read story today. Followed by ‘What microsoft doesn't get about tablets’ and ‘Is '17 People' really the best West Wing episode?’" Hudack wrote.

“It's hard to tell who's to blame. But someone should fix this shit.”

A number of journalists replied in comments, telling Hudack that since Facebook determines what links users see, his employer shares responsibility for what articles go viral. Understanding Facebook's importance, news sites have adapted accordingly.

“My perception is that Facebook is *the* major factor in almost every trend you identified,” Alexis Madrigal, senior editor at The Atlantic, wrote in the comment thread. “I'm not saying this as a hater, but if you asked most people in media why we do these stories, they'd say, ‘They work on Facebook.’”

Hudack, for his part, acknowledged Facebook could do something to change this, and said the company would be "happy" to a chat with the journalism community. 

However, Caroline O’Donovan, a staff writer and reporter with the Nieman Journalism Lab, told Al Jazeera that while transparency on the part of Facebook could have some benefits, too much could have its own drawbacks.

“I think more transparency would help publishers understand better what kind of content Facebook wants to promote,” O’Donovan said, but cautioned that it could let publishers “game the system.”

O’Donovan said this could bring back “garbagey SEO [Search Engine Optimization] baiting headlines from a few years ago.”

'Reverse engineering'

Facebook's algorithm that tries to guess what a person wants to see can also erode the public discourse, experts told Al Jazeera.

“To my mind, it completely adds to the polarization that's happening and the lack of ability for people to find out about what's going on,” said Helen Brunner, head of the Media and Democracy Fund. 

“You’re getting sent back to your previous search history, so it completely subverts the notion that you're doing actual research and searching for a variety of points of view,” Brunner told Al Jazeera.

On the other hand, some observers of Internet culture say people publishing light-hearted links can create connections between them that could come in handy later.

David Maass, a researcher with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told Al Jazeera that trying to regulate what "good" news is won’t work.

“The prevalence of gratuitous listicles and slideshow eye-candy isn't necessarily a bad thing,” Maass said. “In my mind, when people share cat videos of EPIC FAILS or tabloid-style celebrity slideshows, they're helping create a social exchange that will carry over when heavier issues come into play.”

He also said journalists should take advantage of social media to interact with readers, something the ink-stained predecessors couldn’t do with print.

Regardless, said Nick Diakopolous, a fellow at Columbia University’s Tow Center who has written extensively on social media and news (PDF), algorithms are here to stay, and journalists will have to continue to evolve.

“Journalists should get more comfortable with investigating algorithms and engaging in reverse engineering to try to trace the contours of any editorial biases that may exist,” Diakopolous told Al Jazeera.

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