Facebook Considers Prioritizing Trustworthy News Sources in Feed -- Update

Facebook Inc. is broadly overhauling the way it presents news and information on its platform, as it struggles to address criticism from users and others about the quality of the content shared there and its effect on society.

Under planned changes announced Thursday, Facebook will favor posts, photos and videos in the news feed that are shared and discussed among users and their friends over those posted by businesses and news organizations -- a likely blow to companies that rely on Facebook to reach customers. The company also is weighing another major change that could eventually elevate media outlets deemed more trustworthy compared with publishers considered less credible, people familiar with the matter said.

Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg on Thursday called the initial move "a major change in how we build Facebook" that would decrease how much time users spend on the platform and hurt publisher traffic, but ultimately make users happier and boost Facebook's business.

The other potential change would involve ranking news outlets based on some measures of credibility, such as public polling about news outlets, and whether readers are willing to pay for news from particular publishers, the people familiar with the matter said. Such variables would inform the Facebook algorithms that determine which publishers' posts are pushed higher in the feed, one of the people said.

Such a move would thrust Facebook into an even more active role in deciding what content is acceptable on its site -- a role that makes some publishers uneasy. The company hasn't decided whether to proceed with that shift, and it may choose not to do so.

This potential change, as well as the steps outlined Thursday, illustrate Mr. Zuckerberg's willingness to make big changes and consider ideas he previously resisted to address the growing risks looming over the company that he co-founded 14 years ago and that is now used by more than two billion people.

Thursday's announcement follows criticism, including from some former Facebook executives and employees, that Facebook is designed to foster dependence on its platform. Facebook addressed those concerns in a blog post last month that said "passive" social-media use could be harmful to users' mental health.

Mr. Zuckerberg said Thursday that the results of Facebook's internal research and discussions with outside researchers prompted him to order the planned overhaul.

The company's product teams will now focus on driving "meaningful social interactions" rather showing relevant content. Facebook's internal analysis found that this kind of engagement was more likely to happen among friends than among strangers commenting on public content including news articles shared by publications.

Facebook's software will now elevate posts that a user might choose to discuss with his or her Facebook connections, said Adam Mosseri, Facebook's head of news feed, in a blog post.

The moves will change how Facebook handles video, by giving priority to those that users engage with and playing down those that generate views by automatically playing when seen in a person's feed.

The changes also could hurt many companies that rely on Facebook to reach an audience and drum up traffic. Mr. Zuckerberg said users will see less content from businesses including news publishers.

The other big change being considered would help some publishers -- but also marks a major shift in Facebook's role.

Facebook previously has been reluctant to make editorial decisions about the quality or veracity of what is posted on its platform. Mr. Zuckerberg has sought to keep Facebook from taking on editorial responsibilities, saying repeatedly that Facebook wants to minimize the spread of false information on its platform without becoming the "arbiters of truth."

But some critics have said the company, as the most powerful distributor of media content on the web, has a duty to police its feed and work hard to weed out misinformation.

"Facebook has an enormous amount of power and agency when it comes to deciding if publishers will thrive or not thrive," said Emily Bell, director of the Tow-Knight Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University.

A measure like the potential trustworthy rating "isn't going to benefit everybody, but it is a move that adds some clarity to what was a cloudy and disingenuous position from Facebook -- that all content should be treated equally," Ms. Bell said.

It is unclear how the new ranking system would affect publishers' reach -- it would likely vary from outlet to outlet. Some publishers fear that promoting community posts over news could eat into the traffic they receive via Facebook significantly.

Facebook has adjusted its algorithm over the years on multiple occasions to weed out content it believed was cluttering users' feeds, such as "clickbait" stories. Dealing with "fake news," stories that are either hoaxes or conspiracy theories or that include demonstrably false information, has proved tricker.

The company already has joined with outside fact-checkers like PolitiFact and Snopes to mark completely false stories, lowering their prominence in the news feed. And it has launched features such as "related articles" that push readers to think twice before sharing a story.

Write to Deepa Seetharaman at Deepa.Seetharaman@wsj.com and Lukas I. Alpert at lukas.alpert@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

January 11, 2018 23:54 ET (04:54 GMT)