If you’re confused about Facebook’s ongoing efforts to clean up its news feed, you’re not alone. For the last year, the company’s billion-plus users have experienced a series of updates and tweaks to the core elements of the platform, all in response to troubling headlines about the preponderance of click bait and fake news. It all began last May, with Gizmodo‘s blockbuster investigative report claiming that conservative content was being actively suppressed by Facebook’s Trending Topics team. That was followed by headlines during the fall and winter about fake news impacting the presidential election, helping turn the tide for Donald Trump. Those stories prompted plenty of soul-searching at Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park, as well as a lengthy, iterative series of changes intended to demonstrate its commitment to objectivity and responsibility when it comes to its trending news product and general news feed.
So how has Facebook changed over the last year? Every few months the company releases a little information about how its algorithm has shifted and its UI has been improved, but it’s always tentative and incremental. To try to better understand what course of action Facebook has in mind, here’s a timeline of everything the company has announced since the Gizmodo report on May 9, 2016.
So, What Does It All Mean?
After a year of updates, what has really changed? An entire trending news team was disbanded, and the company has offered plenty of assurances that the filtering process has become more automated and more objective. And Facebook keeps insisting that it wants stories both authentic and informative pushed to the top of our feeds (while maintaining that it’s not a publisher, just a platform).
The biggest emphasis has been to crack down on fake news, albeit with mixed results. There certainly seem to be far fewer fictitious and deceptively written posts cluttering the news feed, but as the Guardian recently reported, the problem still persists. And Facebook continues to have trouble stemming the tide of clickbait, despite all of its various efforts over the past year.
Most of all, while trending continues to be a part of the Facebook experience, there doesn’t seem to be as much of a clear vision. Every new update only slightly changes what the product is, and some updates seem suspiciously like older versions.
Facebook has become a front page for most people–whether or not the company admits to being a media company or not. What these changes amount to are hedges and sidesteps about how a massive platform should be feeding users content. Instead of an overall vision about how to implement a global social network, we see remedies and quick fixes to systemic problems.
Facebook is walking a tightrope by determining what is false and what is merely ideologically slanted. And despite a year’s worth of bad headlines, it still seems to be trying to figure out where to go next. The big question is whether the product has improved. While Facebook continues to update its algorithm, which may or may not hurt publishers, are users being served better content?