Facebook wants to be better at putting breaking news in your feed

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Facebook: much better for ice-bucket videos, BuzzFeed quizzes and baby photos than it is for keeping abreast of breaking news. But the social network is hoping to change that.

Facebook has announced its latest tweaks to the algorithm determining what people see in their news feeds, with topical news and timely posts the focus.

Facebook engineers Erich Owens and David Vickrey announced the changes in a blog post:

“We’ve heard feedback that there are some instances where a post from a friend or a page you are connected to is only interesting at a specific moment, for example when you are both watching the same sports game, or talking about the season premiere of a popular TV show.

There are also times when a post that is a day or two old may not be relevant to you anymore. Our latest update to news feed ranking looks at two new factors to determine if a story is more important in the moment than other types of updates.”

One of those two factors is trending topics, with Facebook giving more priority to breaking news “so you can immediately know what your friends or favorite pages are saying about the stories of the day”.

That’s a reaction, in part, to recent criticism of the way protests in US city Ferguson after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by police were a massive trending topic on Twitter, but much less evident on Facebook.

The second new factor affecting Facebook’s news feed algorithm is how people are liking and commenting on posts:

“Currently one of the signals we look at is the total number of likes that a post has received when determining how high up to to show it in news feed. With this update, we are going to begin looking at when people are choosing to like, comment and share.

If people are engaging with the post right after it is posted, and not as much a few hours later, this suggests that the post was most interesting at the time it was posted, but potentially less interesting at a later date. Based on this signal it is more likely to appear higher in news feed earlier on and lower at a later date.”

These are the latest alterations to Facebook’s news feed, and the latest time the social network has published details of changes to explain what it’s doing.

In August 2013, Facebook announced that when its average user logs in, there are 1,500 potential stories that they could see in its news feed, with its algorithm prioritising about 300 of them.

“With so many stories, there is a good chance people would miss something they wanted to see if we displayed a continuous, unranked stream of information,” wrote Facebook’s Lars Backstrom at the time.

“Our ranking isn’t perfect, but in our tests, when we stop ranking and instead show posts in chronological order, the number of stories people read and the likes and comments they make decrease.”

Facebook’s filtering has sometimes sparked controversy: for example in June, when results of a study were published revealing that Facebook had manipulated nearly 700,000 users’ news feeds to understand whether it could affect their emotions.

Meanwhile, companies running Facebook pages have periodically complained that their posts are getting seen by less of the people who have liked their pages, with Facebook forced to defend itself against accusations that it has deliberately been running down “organic reach” in order to make more page owners pay for ads.

Facebook usually argues that its changes are made with users’ interests in mind, rather than its own commercial interests. For example, in August it revealed plans to lower the ranking of links to stories that may be “click-bait”, based on timing how long its users spend reading them.

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Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Stuart Dredge, for theguardian.com on Friday 19th September 2014 08.28 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010