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Can Facebook fix its News Feed problem?

Recode’s Kurt Wagner explains how the social media giant is trying to make things right on the latest Too Embarrassed to Ask.

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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg Drew Angerer / Getty Images

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is devoting 2018 to fixing Facebook, and he has acted fast: In recent weeks, the social media giant has already announced major changes to the main source of its revenue, the News Feed, and acknowledged in a series of blog posts that social media can sometimes be bad for our psyches and for democracy.

On the latest episode of Too Embarrassed to Ask, Recode’s senior social media editor, Kurt Wagner, said Facebook is in a difficult uphill battle to win back the trust of its users.

“Honestly, we’re going to have to have a few more elections that don’t result in Russian meddling before people say, ‘Okay, maybe Facebook has that problem fixed,’” Wagner said. “That is years away. I don’t see Facebook shedding this problem for a long time.”

And even some of Facebook’s reforms have caught flak from techies, journalists and the public. The most controversial of its already announced changes to the News Feed is its plan to ask users which media outlets they recognize and trust, and to (somehow) use that feedback to show trusted outlets more often.

“The goal of this is to figure out who is most accurately and consistently reporting the news and show people more of that stuff,” Wagner said. “If they can identify who everyone trusts and believes, all of a sudden the ‘fake news’ thing goes away — presumably.”

“[There are] a lot of issues with that,” he added. “Why are they relying on regular people, their users, to tell them who is trustworthy and who isn’t? They don’t want to be the one to decide that The New York Times is more reliable than Fox News, which is more reliable than whoever. But let’s be honest: People don’t know what good news is. That’s why we’re in this problem to begin with.”

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On the new podcast, Wagner said Facebook is delegating media rankings to its users because, officially, it doesn’t see itself as a media company. But that reasoning doesn’t totally hold up under scrutiny.

“What we’ve seen is Facebook accepts and adopts the role of being a media company — they don’t say this, but they accept the role in some instances,” Wagner said. “Last year, they paid a bunch of publishers to use Facebook Live, which was their live-broadcasting tool. They came out and said, ‘We want live video to become this new, popular medium and in order to do that, we’re going to seed the ecosystem.’”

“That’s an editorial decision!” he added. “They chose which publishers they wanted to work with and gave them guidelines around creating content that had to live on Facebook. Those are the kinds of things that media companies do.”

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