An alarming number of people rely on social media, including and especially Facebook, for news. Over the past few months, we have seen how Facebook’s Trending Topics feature is often biased, and moreover, how sometimes fake news slips through its filter. The Washington Post monitored the website for over three weeks and found that Facebook is still struggling to get its algorithm right. From the report:The Megyn Kelly incident was supposed to be an anomaly. An unfortunate one-off. A bit of (very public, embarrassing) bad luck. But in the six weeks since Facebook revamped its Trending system — and a hoax about the Fox News Channel star subsequently trended — the site has repeatedly promoted “news” stories that are actually works of fiction. As part of a larger audit of Facebook’s Trending topics, the Intersect logged every news story that trended across four accounts during the workdays from Aug. 31 to Sept. 22. During that time, we uncovered five trending stories that were indisputably fake and three that were profoundly inaccurate (Editor’s note: the link could be paywalled; alternate source). On top of that, we found that news releases, blog posts from sites such as Medium and links to online stores such as iTunes regularly trended. Facebook declined to comment about Trending on the record. “I’m not at all surprised how many fake stories have trended,” one former member of the team that used to oversee Trending told the Post. “It was beyond predictable by anyone who spent time with the actual functionality of the product, not just the code.”The Post adds that “there’s no guarantee” that it was able to catch every hoax, since it looked at Trending feature only once every hour.
More importantly, metrics are also ubiquitous in web newsrooms. As I have described elsewhere, traffic numbers became central actors in the daily functioning of most newsrooms. Today’s editors and staff writers cannot escape the pressure of web analytics. They follow the online popularity of their articles in real-time, allocate the placement of articles on the homepage depending on their click-through rates, conduct A/B testing to decide which headlines are the most popular, receive detailed optimization recommendations about how to promote their pieces, and are increasingly compensated based on the traffic they attract to the sites.
After more than 400 hours of observation spent in the editorial departments of six online publications, as well as a hundred interviews with writers and editors, here is what I learned: Real-time analytics have become central in the daily routines of all media sites. Editors check traffic numbers in real-time to manage the location of articles on the homepage and make headlines more appealing. Editors often describe themselves as “Chartbeat addicts.” At many websites, writers are directly encouraged to think about traffic. Editors and data specialists send rankings based on traffic numbers to staff writers on a regular basis. Web metrics are often used as a management tool. This is sometimes a conscious decision, for example when websites rely on traffic-based financial incentives. In other cases it is less direct, but editors explain that they take metrics seriously when deciding on promotion and compensation. There is often a gap between what journalist say about metrics and what they do. Many writers express cynical views about traffic and say that they do not care about page views. Yet they almost always check whether they are in the “top ten” most read articles list. Journalists react in different ways to traffic numbers depending on the context. In some organizations, writers consider traffic a game at which they want to excel. At other sites, writers feel pressured by their editors to maximize traffic but find strategies to resist. One example: writing a clickbait piece every five articles to “reset the scale” in terms of traffic. Several factors explain why journalists react differently to web metrics, including the size and age of the website, its financial situation, its editorial line, the age of the staffers, their career background (print or web), the management style of the organization, and the country in which this takes place.