Facebook, in the days after the US election, decided that an uptick in viral misinformation related to election results and President Donald Trump’s refusal to concede needed an extreme measure to be dealt with. So the company made a temporary change to its News Feed algorithm to favor mainstream news outlets, according to a report from The New York Times published on Tuesday.
Facebook specifically tweaked how much weight the News Feed gives to “news ecosystem quality” scores, an internet metric designed to quantify the trustworthiness and quality of a news source. That way, users of Facebook would see more news from publishers like The New York Times, CNN, and NPR and less of the hyper-partisan pages that tend to peddle in inflammatory and sometimes downright false or misleading content.
Many of those publishers with poor news ecosystem quality scores happen to be right-wing sites, and many of those right-wing sites have been spreading Trump’s false claims and countless other misleading and dubious election fraud and conspiracy theory stories far and wide on the social network.
“There are many variables at play in every product decision we make, all aimed at creating the best possible experience for people,” Facebook spokesperson Joe Osborne said in a statement given to The Verge. “The assertions in this report are based on sources who have no product decision-making authority and are advancing their own narrow impression of how our process works.”
The company had been signaling for months that it was preparing for worst-case scenarios like what eventually unfolded when President-elect Joe Biden was declared the winner of the election earlier this month, but Trump to this day continues to try to undermine and overturn the results. Facebook described these scenarios and its tools for combating them as “break glass” plans, according to The New York Times.
One of those plans involved manually tweaking the News Feed. CEO Mark Zuckerberg ultimately authorized the change when presented with findings that right-wing news publishers were seeing huge swells in engagement from unverified stories about election fraud and how Democrats were trying to steal the election from Trump, the report states.
Facebook employees are now asking company leadership whether the changes could stay in place to help promote a healthier and less divisive news ecosystem on the social media network. But executives like News Feed chief John Hegeman tell The Times that there are no plans to implement any election-related tweaks as permanent changes to the platform. Rather, Facebook plans to study the experiments.
Update November 24th, 1:14PM ET: Added statement from Facebook.