Public relations firms work around the clock to secure substantive media placements for their clients. The widespread adoption of smartphones and tablets, however, has thrust the world into an age of instant news. Instead of perusing a printed newspaper in the morning to find out what happened the previous day, people are searching their mobile web browsers for news as it happens. Though most articles are available on a news outlet’s website before running in print, most people aren’t scrolling through their favorite news sites for the latest story – they’re getting their updates via social media.
According to the Pew Research Center, 62% of American adults get their news on social media, with over 40% getting their news solely from Facebook. The social networking site began as a neutral information sharing platform, but it has evolved into a media company with a large level of editorial control. While Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg argues that his platform is not a media company because the posts that appear on a user’s feed are chosen by an algorithm and not the Facebook staffers, this algorithm was created by people and is constantly changing based on their research and conclusions. It’s common knowledge that Facebook’s top priority for its news feed is user engagement. Though we don’t know the backend details on how the algorithm works, it is designed to bring stories that are more likely to be read, liked and shared to the top of a user’s feed, and keeps all other stories out of sight. This doesn’t just make it difficult for public relations firms to get their clients’ messages in front of the right audiences, it keeps factual stories from reputable news outlets out of the public’s view.
With so many people looking to Facebook for news, and knowing that this algorithm gives users an extremely skewed stream of unfiltered content, the company needs to take some responsibility and put a fairer, more thoughtful system in place. According to a recent article by The Atlantic, they’ve already begun addressing the issue by implementing a new algorithm that evaluates the validity of a news story based on user comments. More needs to be done though, whether that means reworking the main news feed algorithm or hiring an editorial staff that can review the content that gets filtered into a user’s feed. Our country needs to be better informed on the issues we are facing today, not just by public relations firms, but by social media channels too. Facebook, and other platforms that feed users sensational stories that lack proven facts, need to make some big changes before any more damage is done.