Artificial Intelligence and Algorithms — Friend or Foe to the News?

By Eliza Partika

You, like many others, have probably succumbed to clicking on the “trending” news tab on the right side of your Facebook news feed. At first glance it seems to provide the latest entertaining or newsworthy headlines from around the web, engineered, as Twitter’s feed is, by the millions of active users actually on Facebook reading them and generating views.

This is not exactly true; while the “trending” feed provides users the latest updates, it is run by algorithms programmed to filter through topics. In other words, it is not determined by users, but by artificial intelligence.

According to Facebook’s article “Search FYI: An Update to Trending,” the social media giant uses algorithms to ensure that unimportant topics like #lunch are excluded from the trending list; instead, algorithms pull stories “directly from news sources.” Sounds reasonable until you consider that this switch to computer-selected headlines and articles means that software brains determine what we consume as news everyday, and we hardly consider the implications.

A 2015 article from Time magazine revealed that Facebook determines ads and pages users see on their newsfeeds by “injecting a human element.” The article reveals that Facebook pays an army of employees to surf our newsfeeds and rate how well they “placed stories relative to [our] personal preferences.”

According to The New York Times, Facebook determines political preference based on the pages you like; if people who like the same pages you do have similar political preferences — even if the pages are not political — then Facebook automatically categorizes you with the same political preference.

As a result, the selected stories that these algorithms list as “trending,” are less likely to be balanced. If algorithms tailor “trending” stories to our personal fancies, we receive news biased towards the things we want to see. Although articles within each trending topic might have various perspectives, these algorithms limit the topics that users are exposed to.

Ultimately, in order to answer whether AI threatens the journalism community, we must ask: What defines censorship? Simply put, censorship is the systematic suppression of ideas deemed unacceptable to certain individuals or communities.

Knowing this, AI curators could be implementing a form of censorship by tailoring news based on preference. By censoring posts with hashtags like #lunch in newsfeeds in favor of more newsworthy or agreeable stories, Facebook actively limits a user’s supposed freedom on social media to see things that they might personally value.
However, the argument could also be made that AI is useful in the many ways that journalists do statistical data analysis and publicize their findings to viewers.

In an article published in August of this year, The Washington Post detailed their steps into the frontier of automated storytelling through their program Heliograf, which helped them cover statistical data of the Rio Olympics. Without it, their sports staff would’ve had to spend countless hours computing said data manually. The article praises AI, saying that automated storytelling platforms like Heliograf are capable of revolutionizing how stories are found and reported, as the program can “process crime and real estate numbers” and from those “look for anomalies in data” that would notify journalists of a possible story. If this technology succeeds, then, as The Post’s Director of Strategic Initiatives Jeremy Gilbert details in the article, Heliograf will “free up Post reporters and editors to add analysis [to Heliograf’s statistical data], color from the scene and real insights to stories in ways only they can.”

Journalism has been slowly transitioning towards digital platforms for years now in order to stay afloat. If big publications continue to create new ways to integrate technology into the newsroom, like editorial AI, then journalists definitely have a future in catering to two opposing demands from readers: producing detailed, intelligent news that is also brief enough to be digested in minutes. We can speculate, but only the future can illuminate how AI editorial staffs will affect journalistic professions. If anything, AI promises useful features for analytic journalism than its projected route of censorship and user-specific content curation.