Twitter vs. Facebook as a news source: Ferguson shows the downsides of an algorithmic filter

While Twitter has been alive with breaking news about the events in Ferguson, Mo. after the shooting of an unarmed black man — video clips posted by participants, live-tweeting the arrest of journalists, and so on — many users say Facebook has been largely silent on the topic, with more info about ice-bucket challenges by various celebrities. Is this a sign of a fundamental difference between the two platforms? In a sense, yes. But it’s also a testament to the power of the algorithms that Facebook uses to filter what we see in our newsfeeds, and that has some potentially serious social implications.

Part of the reason why Twitter is more news-focused than Facebook has to do with the underlying mechanics of both sites, and the way user behavior has evolved as a result. Because of its brevity, and the ease with which updates can be shared, Twitter is a much more rapid-fire experience than Facebook, and that makes it well suited for quick blasts of information during a breaking-news event like Ferguson.

Flaws in the symmetrical follow model

Facebook has tried to emulate some of those aspects of Twitter, with the real-time activity feed that sits off to the right of the main newsfeed and shows you when someone has liked a post, or what they are listening to on Spotify, etc.. But even with that, it’s more difficult to follow a quickly-evolving news story easily. And while Twitter has added embedded images and other Facebook-style features over the past year or so, Facebook is still filled with a lot more content that makes it difficult to process a lot of information quickly.

Then there’s the nature of the community: although Facebook has tried to embrace Twitter-style following, which allows users to see updates from others even if they aren’t friends, in most cases people still use the platform the way it was originally designed — in other words, with a symmetrical follow model that requires two people to agree that they are friends before they can see each others’ updates. On Twitter, users decide to follow whomever they wish, and in most cases don’t have to ask for permission (unless someone has protected their account).

As tech-blogger Robert Scoble argued during a debate with Anthony De Rosa of Circa, there are ways to fine-tune your Facebook feed so that it becomes more of a news platform. Like Twitter, Facebook allows users to create topic-driven lists, but the site doesn’t spend much time promoting them, and they are difficult to manage (to be fair, Twitter doesn’t make its lists very prominent or easy to use either). Facebook has also tried to become more of a news source via the Newswire it launched along with Storyful earlier this year, and product manager Mike Hudack says the site is working on other ways of surfacing news better.

Better for friendships than news

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, unless you have taken the time to construct lists of sources you follow for just such an occasion. And then there’s the other aspect of the Facebook environment that makes it more problematic as a news source: namely, the fact that Facebook’s newsfeed is filtered by the site’s powerful ranking algorithms.

As University of North Carolina sociologist Zeynep Tufekci pointed out in a recent piece on Medium, the Facebook algorithm makes it less likely we will see news like Ferguson, for a number of reasons. One is that the newsfeed is filtered based on our past activity — the things we have clicked “like” on, the things we have chosen to comment on or share, and so on. That keeps the newsfeed more relevant (or so Facebook would no doubt argue) but it makes it substantially less likely that a sudden or surprising event like Ferguson will make its way past the filters:

“I wonder: what if Ferguson had started to bubble, but there was no Twitter to catch on nationally? Would it ever make it through the algorithmic filtering on Facebook? Maybe, but with no transparency to the decisions, I cannot be sure. Would Ferguson be buried in algorithmic censorship?”

A technical issue but also a social one

As the term “algorithmic censorship” implies, Tufekci sees this kind of filtering as a societal issue as well as a technical one, since it helps determine which topics we see as important and which we ignore — and David Holmes at Pando Daily has pointed out that if Twitter implements a similar kind of algorithm-driven filtering, which it is rumored to be considering as a way of improving user engagement, Twitter may also lose some of its strength as a news source.

In a sense, Facebook has become like a digital version of a newspaper, an information gatekeeper that dispenses the news it believes users or readers need to know, rather than allowing those readers to decide for themselves. Instead of a team of little-known editors who decide which uprisings to pay attention to and which to ignore, Facebook uses an algorithm whose inner-workings are a mystery. Theoretically, the newsfeed ranking is determined according to the desires of its users, but there’s no real way to confirm that this is true.

In the end, we all have to choose the news sources that we trust and the ones that work for us in whatever way we decide is important. And if we choose Facebook, that means we will likely miss certain things as a result of the filtering algorithm — things we may not even realize we are missing — unless the network changes the way it handles breaking news events like Ferguson.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Thinkstock / Oleksiy Mark