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Facebook looks for ways to end misinformation in the face of news deserts

By: Adam Stout

“About one in three users in the U.S. live in places where we cannot find enough local news on Facebook to launch Today in,” Facebook said in a recent blog post online. “What does that mean exactly? In the last 28 days, there has not been a single day where we’ve been able to find five or more recent news articles directly related to these towns.”

Due to this, Facebook has started its “Facebook Journalism Project Community” which will be an organization that will provide funding for local journalists and news outlets to serve communities that have lost their daily newspapers, the primary source of information in most communities. 

According to a study by the University of North Carolina, at least 1,000 people go every day without some sort of local news in their area. Either through lack of funding or consumers, many local news outlets are being forced to close their doors for good. 

As more and more people make the switch to social media to gather their news, small-town newspapers and television stations are at risk of leaving their communities in news deserts. In response, Facebook has launched a news service called Facebook Today, which provides citizens a way to know what the daily occurrences are in their neighborhoods. 

To their surprise, Facebook has discovered that some towns do not have enough news to fill that part of their site. The Journalism Community Project is aimed at addressing this by generating more local news content. 

“Our sense of community and our trust in democracy at all levels suffer when journalism is lost or diminished,” said Penny Abernathy, Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics at the University of North Carolina.  

According to the Poynter Institute, “Rural areas, as well as minority neighborhoods in big cities, have long been cited as particularly arid news deserts.” 

Abernathy has also said that they have found at least 195 counties out of the 3,007 in the United States have no daily or even weekly newspaper. In these news deserts, over 3.1 million people are without news coverage, leaving them in a media silence, unaware of the surrounding occurrences. Without a local news source, many have turned to the social media site to get news from other citizens, leading to the spread of misinformation and incomplete stories. 

“As civic health fades, local economies suffer. Large enterprises take over politics and city funding; other programs lose out. Healthy civic engagement at the community level is more crucial now than ever,” said Gar Alperovitz, author, political economist, and co-founder of the Democracy Collaborative.

Many Facebook users are recognizing the problem and are frustrated by the lack of local news in their area.

“For national news, I go to bigger newspapers. But for local news, there are information gaps, and my time is limited. When there are updates on things that have been going on, I miss them a lot. For instance, one of the schools had a mold issue, and there is also a nuclear power plant nearby that conducts emergency drills every so often. I usually learn about issues like this after the fact, when I’m talking to friends or when I’m in different groups, in person or online. Here, it’s really difficult to feel like you’re getting all the information about what’s going on around you, in one place,” said Facebook user, Liane S., who lives in Elizabethtown, PA, one of the places where Facebook has been unable to launch Today in, due to a lack of news.

Some people would see this move as a way for Facebook to repay for its part in the decline of local news. Since its launch in 2004, Facebook has steadily grown to be the top social media sites according to a study by GlobalWebIndex. As a result, many users have turned to the site to obtain their daily news as it is more readily available and more personally tailored. This has lead independent news outlets to lose more and more customers every day, leading them to an inevitable end. 

Facebook says that they began this project “in response to what we heard people on Facebook want, after conducting research in mid-2017 that found people wanted to see more local news and community information,” leading people to believe that they are not to blame for their local paper going out of business. 

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