Politics on Facebook and “local information infrastructure”

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By Christopher Brennan

The struggles of local news are a well worn topic in media circles, and the average person is also already well aware that they learn about their community in a different way now than 20 years ago. But what do those changes mean, and could everything shift again with Facebook promising more tweaks of its algorithm?

Last week I spoke to Dr. Kjerstin Thorson, a professor at Michigan State University, about her recent work on “local information infrastructure” and what it means when the gatekeepers of yesteryear, local newspapers, have ceded way to algorithms that determine what people see about where they live.

“For me, local is really the sweet spot to try to untangle how platforms and algorithms are shaping that whole system. What’s more important? What you want to see or who wants to reach you? How we answer that question often depends on how the platform and how algorithmic systems are set up and structured,” she said.

The paper looked at local news organizations, government bodies, non-profits, and other institutions in one city, Lansing, Michigan, to determine just how the site where they were all operating, Facebook, impacted what sort of information they were sharing about politics. On one hand, the results were split into different groups. Local news organizations still provided a fair amount of political information, on topics such as elections or a university president resigning.

However, by expanding the scope to other sorts of actors like non-profits and governments, many of whom were dealing with political issues, Thorson and her team found that the amount of political information being provided was actually quite low. These sorts of organizations were hesitant to participate in any potential controversy and the pressure to generate good engagement such as likes seems to have pushed them to post a cute “throwback” picture of the city rather than discuss policy, for example.

“Despite what you hear about Facebook — for example that there’s a lot of political awfulness on there — most people actually do not want to talk about politics on Facebook because it is so controversial,” Thorson said.

“We found right away that most of the non-news organizations in our dataset, they think the same way.”

The two sides of the coin, who gets targeted with a barrage of politics and who doesn’t get political news, also occur on a person by person basis. One of Thorson’s other papers deals with the way that Facebook assigns individual users keywords that can be targeted by advertisers, and how much it is related to what users want to see.

About half of the users who downloaded their own information and gave it to researchers had four or more “political” keywords such as media outlets or politicians, and about one quarter had one to three keywords. The last quarter of the users, however, had no political keywords.

What Facebook categorizes people as interested in is important, as of course part of Facebook’s business model is increasing engagement so that it can sell more ads. How those categorizations are used may also change, as CEO Mark Zuckerberg said last week that his company had made the decision to show users less political content.

It’s a subtle admission that the way that Facebook is set up, algorithmically and otherwise, is not particularly well suited for news and discussions about that news. The algorithmic shift away from politics follows a shift away from posts by news organizations in 2018, which got many newspapers thinking about why they had been chasing social media clicks instead of quality and subscriptions.

Even as many outlets move away from social media engagement as an important metric, there are still the issues of spotlighting quality news (of which there is a lot from local outlets that you might be missing) among the flood of content. It’s something that Deepnews was built to help with, though even after finding that quality news that there is the question of getting it to readers and giving them a place where they can have important discussions online. It’s a goal that Facebook, at least, seems to be avoiding.

“A lot of the time I think the solution that is suggested is to keep politics out. Keep contention out. Of course, really what we want to do is find ways to have healthy contention, which is a very different sort. And I’m not sure Facebook is the company is the right sort of actor here to help us figure out how to do that,” Thorson said.