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Facebook News debuts as social network battles misinformation

The company is testing the news tab in the US first.

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Facebook wants to be your destination for news.

Angela Lang/CNET

Facebook said Friday that it's testing a tab that will display curated news stories, a move that could help the social network surface more credible media outlets as it tries to curtail the spread of misinformation.

"It's no secret that the internet has really disrupted the news business model," Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said Friday at an event in New York to discuss the news tab. "I just think that every internet platform has the responsibility to try to help fund and inform partnerships to support news."

Called Facebook News, the product will initially have about 200,000 users in the US. A team of journalists will pick top stories. Users will also see personalized news articles based on their interests and articles from their paid news subscriptions. Facebook News users can also hide publishers, articles or topics they don't want to see.

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The separation of news stories into a new tab marks a change from Facebook's previous practice of showing articles in a user's News Feed alongside photos and videos from family and friends. The use of human curators also makes the company less reliant on algorithms to choose and deliver news items, a practice that led to claims that publishers of misinformation and altered videos could game Facebook's systems. 

"We have progress to make before we can rely on technology alone to provide a quality news destination," Campbell Brown, vice president of global news partnerships, and Mona Sarantakos, a product manager for Facebook News, said in a blog post. 

Users will still see news articles appear in their News Feed as well.

The new tab comes as Facebook and other social networks, including Twitter and LinkedIn, increasingly replace newspapers and magazines as the place to consume news. About one-in-five US adults often get their news through social media, surpassing print newspapers, according to a 2018 study by the Pew Research Center. Last year, though, Facebook changed its News Feed so users saw more content from family and friends than news articles or posts from brands. The company also continues to battle disinformation and allegations that it suppresses conservative speech, which Facebook has denied. 

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Facebook News will display curated top stories in a section called "Today's Stories."

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Facebook and news organizations have a strained relationship because both compete for ad dollars, making media outlets wary about relying too much on social networks to drive traffic to their stories. Facebook didn't name the news outlets it was partnering with for Facebook News in the blog post. A person familiar with the matter said The Washington Post, Bloomberg, BuzzFeed News, Business Insider, Bloomberg, Hearst Newspapers, McClatchy and the LA Times were among the publications participating. Facebook is paying some publishers who provide a steady amount of fact-based original content, the person said. 

CNET and some sister sites, including CBS News, CBS Sports and ET, are paid partners.

The social network declined to comment on the terms of the deals. Zuckerberg said that generally, Facebook's paid deals are based on the amount of content that a publisher produces and how many people subscribe to or read it. 

Zuckerberg's spin

Zuckerberg said Facebook hopes that after several years, 20 million to 30 million people in the US will use the News tab. 

One change of the last few years that paved the way for the News tab, Zuckerberg said, is Facebook's work on "secondary tabs." Most time spent on Facebook is in the company's algorithmic News Feed, which curates all kinds of posts from people and pages you follow. But secondary tabs, like the Watch tab for video and now a News tab for articles, are minihubs for other kinds of content. 

Having a secondary tab for News was a way for Facebook to address the conundrum of news on the platform. 

"We get consistent feedback from the vast majority of people on our services that they want to see more content from friends and family and less other stuff," Zuckerberg said. That created an "odd dynamic" where Facebook wanted to support journalism, but the company would be "paying for content [when] people are saying that they actually want to see something else instead."

Zuckerberg was asked about thorny issues linked to Facebook taking on the role of curating news. In terms of how the News tab will deal with stories about Facebook, Zuckerberg said it would be unreasonable to have News product that doesn't cover Facebook. 

"In order to make this a trusted source over time, they [the News tab's team of curators] have to cover it objectively," he said. "We need to make sure that this team has kind of free rein to ... include content about Facebook or me or anything else that's related to that." 

Facebook's decision to include Breitbart News as a publisher that can be included in the News tab's curation has stoked criticism. Breitbart, a conservative publication that one of its founding board members once defined as a "platform for the alt-right" may be eligible to show up in the News tab, Zuckerberg said, but "we're going to have to see a little bit how this plays out" having curators choose top stories.   

"Part of having this be a trusted source is that it needs to have a diversity of views in there," he said. 

But he also said that the News tab isn't meant to be a place where anybody's voice should be allowed to be heard. "Most of the rest of what we operate on is helping give people a voice broadly, and making sure that everyone can share their opinion," he said. "That's not this. This is a space that is dedicated to high-quality and curated news."

Facebook has faced criticism that its partnerships with third-party fact-checkers haven't been rigorous enough to prevent misinformation from going viral on the site. The company doesn't send speech from politicians to fact-checkers, for example, a policy that attracted more scrutiny from Democrats this month. If a story is rated false by a fact-checker, Facebook won't delete the post but will show it lower in the News Feed.

A tab of one's own

Users will be able to find the news tab on the social network like its video hub Watch or Marketplace, where people can sell and buy items. The company said it's displaying news in the tab from four categories of publishers: general, topical, diverse and local news. Publishers will need to meet certain criteria to be eligible to show their stories in the news tab, as well as abide by its rules against hate speech, violence and other offensive content.

As part of the test, the company will showcase local news from media outlets from major US cities including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington DC. Facebook will display news from its local news section "Today In" in the coming months as well.

Facebook, which competes with Apple and Google in news aggregation, has faced challenges working with publishers and journalists. In 2015, Facebook launched Instant Articles, a way for publishers to display news articles on the social network without prompting users to leave the site. Many publishers appear to have cast aside that format, the Columbia Journalism Review reported last year. 

Facebook also used to display "trending" topics on its site but the company scrapped the controversial section in 2018 after four years. The section surfaced fake news and conspiracy theories. There were also allegations that workers suppressed conservative news within that section, but Facebook pushed back against these claims. 

The company hasn't said yet when it plans to launch Facebook News globally.

Originally published Oct. 25, 3 a.m. PT.
Update, 12:40 p.m.: Adds comments from Zuckerberg throughout.