Where You Should Be Getting Your News on Ferguson
August 20, 2014
Lisa Rossi

If you are concerned that Facebook is making you stupid and uninformed, there is a solution.

Get your news elsewhere.

In fact, get it from lots and lots of places. It won’t be long before you will figure out what the “big” story is.

That’s the advice from Nick Diakopoulos, a soon-to-be assistant professor of journalism at University of Maryland (he starts next week) who studies algorithms.

We spoke on the phone  after a handful of  headlines had circulated through the Internet raising questions about whether Facebook’s algorithms favored feel-good news (such as videos of people dumping ice water on themselves to raise money for ALS ) over the community upheaval playing out right now in Ferguson, Missouri, the site of a police shooting earlier this month of unarmed teenager Michael Brown.

While others are worried that Facebook algorithms cause hard news events like Ferguson to be less emphasized on the news feed than other posts, Diakopoulos advised news consumers to simply do what they’ve always done.

Read news from a variety of places. People should be visiting many different platforms, whether it be Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or news websites. They won’t be left in the dark.

“All have different algorithms that will trigger on some different things. … There’s many, many entry points nowadays,” he said. “I’m less convinced that people just categorically won’t find out about something. They might not find out about it as soon. I think the big events will find you some way.”

University of North Carolina sociologist Zeynep Tufekci writes in Medium about the delay she observed one night in finding news about Ferguson on her Facebook feed. She observed it after a day when news of it was bombarding her on Twitter, amid headlines of journalists being arrested after working on their laptops in a McDonald’s.

She raised the question: Without Twitter, “would Ferguson be buried in algorithmic censorship?”

Facebook has declined to comment on how Ferguson is appearing on news feeds, but representatives pointed to published descriptions of its feed, which, put simply, pushes up content that resembles the stuff you commonly interact with.

As Facebook puts it, “If you play games, you’ll see more games stories. If you read news, you’ll see more news.”

Matthew Ingram, in Gigaom, points out that the way Facebook truly determines how stories show up in a news feed is a mystery, but in theory, it’s based on what the user has already “liked” or interacted with.

“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,” Ingram writes.

Twitter has Algorithms Too

Diakopoulos explained that Twitter’s algorithm doesn’t filter content, but is designed to filter trends and highlight trending hashtags, a process that also deserves scrutiny.

“What constitutes a trending hashtag? Does it have to be a local trend? Above a certain number of tweets per density of area? There are questions on how that is measured,” he said. “If something spikes up and then goes back to a low volume, does that count as a trend? What if it’s 10 tweets per hour but never spikes up – – but it’s a sustained amount of attention?”

The worry is, according to Diakopoulos, that if Twitter fails to deem an important event as “trending,” — well, people may not learn about it from that platform.

Still, he said he doesn’t want to “overblow” this.

“It’s not like we’re living in a media sphere where we only have one platform,” he added.

Users Continue to Take their Questions on Ferguson to Google

Not getting the answers through trending topics on Twitter, Facebook’s algorithms, or even, from your favorite local news website?

There’s always Google.

According to Google Trends, which documents popular searches, “Michael Brown” remained among the most searched term early this week (along with Don Pardo, the “Voice of Saturday Night Live” who died Monday and singer Taylor Swift, who released a new video.

Users continue to seek answers to basic questions surrounding Ferguson on Google, such as “Where is Ferguson?” “What is going on in Ferguson?” and “What started Ferguson?” according Roya Soleimani, a spokesperson with Google.

This article includes reporting from AJR editorial intern Cory Blair


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