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Ferguson sparks Facebook controversy over news feeds

Ferguson Guardman in gas mask
Ferguson Guardman in gas mask
Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

On the morning of August 19, 2014, the Washington Post ran a news report highlighting the fairly drastic differences in news coverage between Facebook and Twitter, with Facebook receiving some rather low marks. The topic of comparison was the shooting death of the unarmed teenager, Michael Brown, by a Ferguson, Missouri police officer.

While Twitter was spitting out second-by-second updates, Facebook seemed to be falling farther and farther behind. Facebook users would be watching their CNN live news coverage of officers threatening tear gas into faceless crowds of Ferguson protesters and national news reporters while their Facebook feeds were posting news updates stating that everything was “relatively peaceful.”

Or worse, no Ferguson coverage at all was making it to millions of Facebook news feeds, simply because of the users’ past news preferences of Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber updates.

A Washington Post editorial from the same day, August 19, 2014, tries to explain why this might have happened. According to the writer of the editorial, Alexandra Petri, the problem may simply be the standard Facebook “like” button. It is sometimes very difficult for a Facebook user, even in the privacy of their own homes, to click the “like” button on such a terrible and appalling news story. No human being with any sense of decency LIKES what is going on in Ferguson, so we are more reluctant to click the “like” button.

And since Facebook uses algorithms to control the information and news feeds that we see, algorithms that are manipulated and influenced by our “likes” and “shares,” the quality of the news feeds that we receive is often negatively affected as a result.

Twitter does not use these same algorithms, but there are algorithms used nonetheless. The interactions on the Twitter feeds are instantaneous and uncompromised by the Twitter administration. As one Twitter user put it rather eloquently,

When it comes to breaking news like #ferguson, @Twitter has proved its power. @Facebook has been great for showing ice bucket videos.

But both Facebook and Twitter have their share of problems. Neither platform of social media offers fair and balanced news coverage, regardless of the topic at hand. Of course, the same can now be said of our television news reports, as well. The algorithms used on Twitter were a bit slow to react to the national importance of the Ferguson controversy. The story trended locally very quickly, but it took some time to catch on to the national trend.

Like it or not, we now live in a digital age of choices. We can now “choose” the news we want to see and from what media resource we want to see it. Perhaps there is no one-size-fits-all solution, but that is part of the beauty of living in the ever-changing world of the Internet. Perhaps the responsibly to keep informed of current affairs is our own, not those of intangible Facebook and Twitter algorithms.