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Facebook news feed algorithm gets an update to allay censorship fears

Facebook users might soon notice a slight difference in the social media network’s news feed algorithm.

The company revealed June 29 it will update its news feed algorithm, which determines how posts appear and are ordered for users to see. The algorithm will prefer content posted by friends and family over content pushed by publishers.

Published content shared by friends and family will be treated as a friend’s post, not as a publisher’s post. Facebook hopes that will decrease the circulation of sensational and misleading stories and promote stories that “inform” and “entertain.”

While the changes do not directly address concerns about conservative censorship on the site, they are designed to answer claims the network uses secret algorithms to suppress ideas with which the company’s leaders disagree.

Facebook publicized the algorithm update in the company’s first official values statement about how the company chooses what appears on the news feeds of its estimated 1.5 billion users.

The statement came after the social media giant faced accusations in May of anti-conservative bias. The accusations alleged the site’s Trending module, which shows what topics are being discussed among users, prevented conservative news from appearing.

The updated algorithm will change Facebook’s news feed ⎯ not its Trending Topics, the focus of the accusations. But the news deed is the site’s main and prominent feature.

Adam Mosseri, Facebook’s news feed product manager, said the concerns raised by conservatives in May pushed the company to be transparent about how it makes news feed decisions.

The claims alarmed conservative leaders and some news organizations. U.S. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, sent a letter to Facebook asking the company to explain how it selected its Trending Topics.

“Any attempt by a neutral and inclusive social media platform to censor or manipulate political discussion is an abuse of trust and inconsistent with the values of an open internet,” Thune said in a statement accompanying the letter.

Facebook CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg responded by emphasizing that Facebook doesn’t censor when choosing its Trending Topics. Zuckerberg met with 16 prominent conservatives to calm concerns and answer questions.

“There’s a perception among conservatives that Facebook is a liberal organization that conservatives can’t trust, and they seem genuinely interested in changing that,” Rob Bluey, Heritage Foundation’s vice president of publishing, who attended the meeting, told Politico.

Facebook’s published news feed values attempt to perpetuate its claim of openness and tolerance toward all viewpoints and resources—as long they follow the site’s “community standards.”

“We are not in the business of picking which issues the world should read about,” Facebook’s values statement said. “Our integrity depends on being inclusive of all perspectives and viewpoints. … We don’t favor specific kinds of sources—or ideas.”

The company’s community standards have created problems for conservatives in the past. In April, Fox Business reported Facebook banned Kristi Merrit, a Washington state resident, following posts in which she voice support for restroom use based on biological sex, not gender identity.

While Facebook attempted to solve one problem, it might have created another. The updated algorithm favoring posts from friends and family might cause issues for publishing companies, whose audience reach and referral traffic may decline as a result of the changes, according to Lars Backstrom, Facebook’s engineering director. That may cause pushback from publishing and media companies that rely on Facebook to distribute content.

— by Sarah Wedel

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