March 23, 2017

Before she became Facebook’s Head of News Partnerships, Campbell Brown had to deal with a low-tech filter bubble.

As a host on CNN, she was competing every night with the likes of left-leaning MSNBC and right-leaning Fox News. Battling low ratings, she left her 8 p.m. slot in 2010 with a rare hat tip to her partisan competitors.

“I hosted a show on CNN, and I had Keith Olbermann on my left and Bill O’Reilly on my right,” Brown said. “…The filter bubbles predate Facebook.”

Brown recounted her personal experience with partisanship at The Poynter Institute Thursday night onstage during an interview with Poynter Vice President Kelly McBride. During the conversation, Brown discussed her experience with filter bubbles, Facebook’s war on fake news and what she does in her capacity as the social network’s ambassador to news organizations.

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A consistent refrain during the interview was the at-times tricky relationship between Facebook and the thousands of newsrooms that use it to publish content every day. Does it have an obligation to a news industry that’s been profoundly disrupted by Silicon Valley giants like Facebook and Google? With more and more advertising dollars flowing away from publishers and toward Facebook every year, is it duty-bound to help out?

Brown acknowledged that, with so many people consuming news on Facebook every day, the company has a responsibility to make sure information is thorough and accurate. And because news draws users, it’s in Facebook’s best interests to ensure that there’s a wealth of quality information, she said.

“In this day and age, especially, there is nothing more important to our democracy than having a thriving news media,” she said.

Brown outlined several ways Facebook is working with news organizations to improve the news industry and the company’s place in it. It’s begun a program that allows third-party fact-checkers to flag hoaxes on the social network so they spread less quickly. It’s working with news organizations — especially local news organizations — to help figure out a sustainable business model. And it’s working to promote news literacy so that its 1.86 billion monthly active users can tell the difference between The New York Times and Breitbart.

Toward the beginning of the conversation, McBride asked Brown about Facebook’s role in the rise of filter bubbles — isolated communities on social media or elsewhere where people consume information that reinforces their worldview. Brown answered by citing her real-world experience with two filter bubbles: The partisan divide on cable news and the urban-rural divide between New York (where she works) and Louisiana (where she grew up).

“The political views that I get from my friends and family in Louisiana are very different than the ones I’m exposed to in my New York bubble,” Brown said.

McBride pressed the issue, noting that Facebook has an incentive not to challenge the ideological perspectives of its users: If they feel more comfortable with their News Feeds, they’re going to spend more time scrolling through them. And if they spend more time scrolling through them, Facebook gets to show them more ads.

“You want to keep people on your platform,” McBride said. “After two hours, I don’t feel like I’ve chosen. I feel like I’ve been sucked in.”

Brown pointed out that Facebook’s News Feed algorithm responds to signals from users.

“It’s not that mysterious,” she said. “What shows up in your News Feed is based on the things that you like. Things you share. People you’re friends with and that you follow.”

“Isn’t that a filter bubble?” McBride countered.

“I’m telling you, that world existed long before Facebook,” Brown said, and recommended that users who want to be challenged cultivate a diverse range of ideological perspectives on their feeds.

Later during the conversation, the topic of fake news came up again when McBride asked Brown whether it would make data from its third-party fact-checking project available to the wider public. Brown said that’s something Facebook is considering, noting that the project is “expanding very quickly.”

Brown also touched on several initiatives Facebook is working on to improve the business prospects for news organizations that use the social network. The company is experimenting with allowing publishers to run mid-roll ads on their videos, a medium that journalists have so far struggled to monetize. Its experimenting with customization of Instant Articles, its within-Facebook publishing system. And she referenced Facebook Editions, a Snapchat Discover-like experience that allows news organizations to present their content in bundles.

There are still many opportunities for monetizing news, but Brown offered a couple notes of caution for publishers. First, there’s no going back to the good ol’ days when every regional metro had a D.C. bureau. And second, every business model is different. Solutions that work for international news organizations like The New York Times and BuzzFeed won’t necessarily work for a regional newspaper.

“I don’t think anybody has come up with a solution yet,” Brown said. “Part of the challenge is it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution.”

During an exchange after the interview, Brown fielded questions from multiple journalists who wanted answers to questions about Facebook’s News Feed algorithm: Would Facebook ever override the algorithm to make sure people saw stories that weren’t particularly shareable? And would it consider being more transparent about the factors that cause stories to appear higher in users’ feeds?

Brown responded to the first question by noting that Facebook has decided to go against its outlined standards when there was a compelling case to be made for the public interest. After the social network pulled down the iconic “Napalm Girl” photo because it violated guidelines prohibiting child nudity, Facebook restored the image because of its historical value.

In response to the second question, Brown noted that Facebook recently launched a blog that keeps publishers appraised of changes to the News Feed algorithm.

As the interview was wrapping up, Brown emphasized the symbiotic relationship that Facebook wants to cultivate with news organizations.

“I think we’re linked, and we’re excited to be,” Brown said. “We want Facebook to be in a good place. So we want journalism to be in a strong place. And that means we have some work to do together.”

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Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism…
Benjamin Mullin

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