Campbell Brown on Facebook’s plans to decide what news is trustworthy

Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

In interviews following the F8 developer conference in San Jose on Tuesday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said he believes that journalism is “incredibly important to society and democracy,” but at the same time noted it is a tiny fraction of what happens on the giant social network. That tension runs through all the ways in which Facebook handles news and information on the platform, including its attempt to rank sources based on how trusted they are, which Zuckerberg said Facebook has already started doing.

How are these changes going to affect media companies who currently rely on Facebook for their traffic and revenue? And how will the company decide which news sources are considered trusted or high quality and which aren’t, if users disagree? CJR talked with Facebook’s head of news partnerships, Campbell Brown, about those and other thorny questions, and about some of the new features the social network is working on related to news and journalism. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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We’ve heard Facebook wants to pay news organizations to create programming for Facebook’s Watch video feature. Can you talk about that?

This is an experiment, but we are bringing together a group of about 10 to 12 publishers and we are going to pay them directly to produce news programming for Watch. My hope is that Watch will become a destination for news on Facebook that people know is reliable, and they will find diversity of sources and different points of view. And during breaking news it would become a place to go to find whatever the most important stories of the day are. It’s a big step for us, and we’re just starting to figure this out with a handful of publishers who are going to be the early testers. I think there is real potential for us to create a destination for video news.

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Some media companies seem rather antagonistic about Facebook and how it has disrupted the media ecosystem. How do you respond to that?

It’s not my role to lobby publishers to be on Facebook if they don’t feel like that’s the right way to reach their audience, I want to be 100 percent clear about that. But, for the ones who are on Facebook and who see the potential for distribution on Facebook, I want to help them make money. I want to help them find a business model that works so they keep doing what they do best which is journalism.

 

Facebook’s changes to the algorithm are going to have a fairly significant impact on the traffic and revenue of some publishers. What would you tell them?

What we’ve done is to down-rank clickbait and down-rank sensationalism, and we’ve given a boost to broadly trusted news sources, or what we define as informative news sources. So publishers who built a business on clickbait are not going to find success on Facebook. We are optimizing for quality journalism going forward, we’ve been very clear about that, and I think it’s the right thing to do. I’m excited that Mark and Facebook have made that commitment and I think most publishers are too. But it does mean a period of transition while a lot of publishers adjust to this new environment.

 

Can you talk a bit more about that transition and how Facebook is approaching it?

I think we are shifting how we think about news on Facebook. We used to think about it as optimizing for engagement, but now we’re optimizing for quality. So a lot of the journalism that might have been successful in the past because it got a lot of engagement—viral videos and sensationalist kind of content that everybody wanted to click on—isn’t going to do very well given what we’re optimizing for now. Now there were plenty of people who were doing good journalism regardless of what Facebook was optimized for. And I don’t think that’s changed. I just think they’re going to be much happier with how they do on the platform. And it does mean that if you are in the business of doing a lot of sensationalism and clickbait and you had a really successful business on Facebook, you are going to be impacted in a negative way by these changes.

 

We used to think about it as optimizing for engagement, but now we’re optimizing for quality.

 

A lot of media companies feel as though Facebook often pulls a bait-and-switch tactic on them, where they are promised certain things and then the algorithm changes.

I think that’s true. And some of that has to do with the different cultures of a technology company and a media company. For technology companies, the culture is to experiment and change and to modify and to iterate and to be in a constant state of change. Whereas if you’re building a media business, you’re looking for stability and consistency. And so those two dynamics aren’t always gonna mesh very well. I think what we can do to make things better is transparency and communication about what’s coming — like we may go to a publisher and say we want to test this new product, but what we also have to say is that it might not work and if it doesn’t work we’re going to change it. So don’t come test with us if you’re not ready for that ride.

 

Ranking news sources on trust is a difficult problem, since a lot of people disagree on who they trust. Lots of people trust Breitbart News, for example.

I think that is what makes this so hard, that we’re trying to find ways to define quality. We’re trying to find ways that are fair that can account for the different kinds of journalism out there. It’s really hard to get this right. One of the measures we’re using is to look at broadly trusted news organizations, but if you try to define widely trusted you end up with mostly big brand-name publishers versus someone small like Axios, more niche publishers who aren’t going to have the same brand recognition. So what are the quality measures you look at to ensure that we capture those publishers? And how do you get people to agree on quality measures? This is really tricky, and it’s one of the things we’re going to be devoting a lot of time to in the coming months because I don’t think that we can unilaterally make these decisions and get it right.

 

It seems inevitable that Facebook is going to be accused of rigging the game or choosing the sources that it likes for whatever reason.

It’s not going to be perfect. I’m not going to lie, we don’t have all the answers yet. We’re going to do this in conjunction with publishers, we’re going to do it in partnership with academia. I want to have a broad cross-section of people in the ecosystem and engaged in conversation. I’d love to work with the other platforms on this. But even then even, let’s say we get the most broad selection of people across the ecosystem to agree on 10 to 15 quality signals that we all agree  the platforms should use to boost quality content. We’re still going to be accused of picking winners and of not getting it right, it’s inevitable. But the alternative is not one that I think any of us can live with. We do have have to agree on a shared set of facts. And we have to do the best we can to ensure that the information that is getting a boost is factual. I don’t have the answers yet for how we do it, which is why we’re taking baby steps in this direction, because it’s going to be really really difficult.

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Mathew Ingram is CJR's chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in The Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as Reuters and Bloomberg.