The Newseum's Jeffrey Herbst on 'The Algorithm As Editor'


HONOLULU (Sept. 29, 2016)—Speaking by Skype recently to participants in the East-West Center 2016 International Media Conference in New Delhi, Dr. Jeffrey Herbst, President and CEO of the Newseum in Washington, D.C., addressed the growing trend of social media companies like Facebook using computer algorithms to give consumers news that the programs think they’ll be interested in. Calling the trend even more significant than the original emergence of news websites, Herbst said the problem is that social media companies, “which do not consider themselves news organizations, are more interested in keeping users’ attention within their platform than they are with delivering important news.”

(Watch video of Herbst's remarks.)

Until recently, Herbst said, only a few gatekeepers determined the national news agenda across the U.S., including editors at a handful of newspapers like The New York Times and Wall Street Journal, and the three major TV networks. When iconic anchorman Walter Cronkite ended his broadcasts by saying “and that’s the way it was,” it indeed determined what many people would be talking about the next day.

But in the Internet age, anyone with web access can blog or put up a YouTube video, he said. So instead of “a few people determining what an entire nation would hear, now we have the democratization of information.” Or as it has been said, “the people formerly known as the audience are now speaking.”

In the beginning , it was thought that users were going to have to sort through all this information ourselves, he said. But because it was impossible to take in all the millions of daily posts, social media platforms became important funnels to understand the news. Facebook especially, but also Google News and others, now serve as pipes for the vast amount of information that people and companies produce, and provide them to followers or subscribers. “This is a critical development,” he said, “and one that has not been understood enough.” Recent studies show, for example, that Facebook is becoming the major platform through which young Americans get their news.

“I’m not only referring to posts from family and friends, but how individuals consume actual news by following newspapers, TV and magazines, who then provide that information to Facebook and other platforms as posts,” Herbst said. Now instead of news editors determining which news is the most significant on any given day, “it’s the algorithms that determine what people actually see or read. In many ways, the algorithm has become an editor.”

Calling such algorithms “partially art and partially science,” Herbst said that “Facebook’s goal, as a company that seeks to make money for shareholders, is to make sure that people stay on its platform as long as possible and read as many posts as possible, so that they can sell as many ads as possible at a higher price.” And this is no secret: Facebook and others have all been transparent about the goals of their algorithms, although not necessarily about the specifics of how they make content decisions.

Apple News, and to some extent Facebook, have human curators who review what their algorithms produce, said Herbst, “so it’s not just a case of the machine. But an algorithm has its own bias, and the social media companies have not necessarily wrestled with their bias and what their role is in the transmission of information.”

Though tech corporations like Facebook, Apple and Google maintain that they are not fundamentally news-media organizations but only the infrastructure through which people receive news, Herbst said he doesn’t believe that the current position of these companies is viable over the long term and that they are going to be forced by demands from consumers as well as government to think hard about what should be transmitted through their platforms. “We’ve already seen this most dramatically with regard to posts around terrorism,” he said, “but also controversies around bias and harassment, as well as material that some people just find offensive.”

Pointing to a recent controversy over charges that conservative articles are not given enough visibility on Facebook feeds, he said that “this is just the tip of the iceberg, as people across the world understand the power of these platforms and how important they are in determining what people know. So I think it is incumbent upon these companies to begin to think of themselves as news companies. If they don’t take this position now, they will be forced to do so in the future.”

Herbst said another concern is people getting only news that conforms to their pre-existing biases, in a so-called “filter bubble.” Because the algorithm is most interested in keeping you on the platform as long as possible, he said, “they have no interest in providing you a balanced display of the news, but rather they want to feed you more of the same based on what you’ve read or clicked on before.”

Herbst doesn’t claim that TV and newspapers of the past were without bias, but because the reader chose what to read from the editors’ selection of presented stories, there could be “at least the hope that a wide display of information was available.” Today, he said, “the focus of responsibility for a healthy balance of the news has shifted from the newspaper to the consumer.”

You can get a perfectly balanced flow of news via Facebook, he said, but you have to signal to the algorithm that this is what you want. If you only read or search out one type of news, you will get more of the same. “Again, this is not the algorithm’s fault,” Herbst  said. “But I think people who want a more diverse presentation of the news will have to take more responsibility than before.”

Of course, journalists also have an important role to play in all of this, he said. They should be explaining to citizens across the world what is happening to the news ecosystem and why consumers receive some stories and not others. “Journalists also must work to promote a news system that has a broad diversity of viewpoints, encourages everyone to participate and demeans no one,” he said. “These are critical issues and essential to the health of democracies worldwide.”

Herbst said it’s clear to him that technologists have gone way ahead of journalists in thinking about how news delivery systems are going to evolve: “Now it is our job – journalists, citizens and those who care about freedom across the world – to try to catch up so we can realize the potential of social media and the web to promote a better informed citizenry and better functioning democracy.”