Tired of fake news on Facebook? So is Facebook. Which is why the company announced the Journalism Project Initiative in January 2017. To improve Facebook’s rocky relationship with publishers, the Initiative seeks to build out local news partnerships, support journalism, and encourage news literacy, among other goals. Now Facebook has announced the next step of the initiative; Facebook wants to prompt civic engagement with the local news section. The social network is testing a new section of its app called “Today In.” The new section is a mix of city-specific events, announcements, and local news.
Facebook has been working on enhancing local communities and groups for some time. It’s all a part of Facebook’s ongoing effort to ‘bring the world closer together.’ This effort was perhaps the inspiration for Facebook testing a new section called ‘Today in…’ which features local news items based on your location.
This section will highlight the top news stories, events, and announcements in your vicinity. Facebook is testing its new local hub with a small batch of test markets. Those initial cities are all located in the U.S. and include New Orleans, Louisiana; Olympia, Washington; Billings, Montana; Binghamton, New York; Peoria, Illinois; Little Rock, Arkansas.
This isn’t Facebook’s first attempt at trying to make the platform more locally focused. But it does say something that Facebook has chosen a tiny batch of city-specific rollouts. That paired with at least somewhat of a hands-on approach to curation indicates that Facebook is trying to move cautiously with this new option.
Users in these test cities will soon see a prompt alerting them to the new option. They will be able to access the feature through the bottom-right menu button in the core Facebook app.
Once users click through to the section, they will see dedicated listings of local events, news, and Facebook groups. Highlighting groups is in line with Facebook’s wider push on Groups as a means to facilitate community engagement.
Many users have noticed that Facebook has made Groups a much larger focus recently. This shift has seen several publishers putting more emphasis on their own branded groups, and reaping the benefits, as an alternative to the News Feed.
Facebook has long resisted being labeled a media company, but the announcement that the social media network will be using a combination of humans and machine learning systems to pull content for this new section clearly puts them into the editorial space.
When Facebook’s employees decide what qualifies as news they also open themselves up to accusations of potential bias. However, if Facebook is able to improve civic engagement, while also vetting and highlighting relevant news sources, there could be a multitude of benefits. A positive outcome could help reinforce the platform’s wider mission, put more focus on ‘real’ news, and generate a larger discussion on local topics.
It’s no secret that local issues are easier for users to verify as people are closer to these issues. More discussion on local issues could lead to less discussion on larger news stories, which is where the platform has seen problems in the past. Users aren’t able to access actual sources on larger news stories, which gives them a smaller capacity to confirm their validity. It’s how ‘fake’ news can spread so easily.
One potential downside to a focus on local issues is that while there is potential to enliven civic engagement, there is just as much possibility that these issues will be seen as insignificant. And while Facebook plans to alert users in the six tests cities that the new feature exists, it will then be relegated to the menu along with dozens of other lesser-used sections of the app. How many functions are there already that users are aware of but don’t use? Having the section relegated to the Menu list could lessen its potential impact. Of course, if test users respond well to the new section there is also the possibility that Facebook could replace the regular news section with local news.
After seeing how their network can be misused by political groups, Facebook is very focused on showcasing the good that it can do, especially in regards to sharing information. It remains to be seen whether the newest change appeals to stockholders and advertisers the same way it does to users.
This wider push to become a more integral part of community interaction could help stem the perception that Facebook is bad for society. For users, knowing that Facebook wants to prompt civic engagement with local news section could be what the social network needs to boost its benefits. The local news section could also be the first of many smaller updates and tweaks as Facebook seeks to further their Journalism Project Initiative.