The One thing that Could Settle the Facebook News Controversy

There’s one thing that could put the whole Facebook Trending News bias controversy to monkey-236864_1920rest – but I haven’t seen it yet.

In case you are not familiar with the story, Gizmodo ran this piece last week: Former Facebook Workers: We Routinely Suppressed Conservative Views. The story hit a nerve, given election season timing and concerns about the growing influence of Facebook and other social networks.

To quell the controversy, Facebook made a number of statements and released details of their process for how the trending news “sausage” is made (which was a real page turner for news feed geeks like me).

These moves did not settle the matter. The major news organizations covered the details – but predictably and ironically from their left and right leaning perspectives.

The New York Times story by Mike Isaacs saw no evil; he covered the checks and balances, implying that these filter out biases:

While algorithms determine the exact mix of topics displayed to each person… a team is largely responsible for the overall mix of which topics should — and more important, should not — be shown in Trending Topics. For instance, after algorithms detect early signs of popular stories on the network, editors are asked to cross-reference potential trending topics with a list of 10 major news publications, including CNN, Fox News, The Guardian and The New York Times.

But the Wall Street Journal’s Deepa Seetharaman saw something more insidious:

Facebook researchers last year ranked 500 news sites based on how popular they were with the social network’s users who identified their political alignment as conservative or liberal. According to those rankings, eight of the 10 national news outlets that play an outsize role in determining trending topics are more popular with liberals.

I’ll leave the topic of Facebook’s response to a crisis for another post (they broke the first rule: don’t piecemeal information, that just prolongs the issue).

It seems to me that there must be some unstructured text mining tech that could settle the question. Isn’t it possible to analyze Facebook Trending News stories to find and tabulate the ones with a slant – and compare the numbers for left and right-leaning stories?

It is no simple task, given the complexities of how this all works. Facebook’s document reveals the processes, which blend human and machine effort. Even after the algorithms and editors pick their shots, the feeds get further tailored based on user preferences and actions.

But the bigger question: Is it really even possible to edit or curate without bias?

Google and Facebook Updates

The Wall Street Journal wrote last week about Google’s plans to give marketers and publishers a way tonews-97862_1280 post stories to search results.  It is not the same as AMP (accelerated mobile pages) – in this case, Google will actually host content.  AMP caches content for faster page loading.  As the article said:

“Google has built a Web-based interface through which posts can be formatted and uploaded directly to its systems. The posts can be up to 14,400 characters in length and can include links and up to 10 images or videos. The pages also include options to share them via Twitter, Facebook or email. Each post is hosted by Google… and appears in a carousel in results pages for searches related to their authors for up to a week… After seven days, the posts remain live but won’t be surfaced in search results. Rather, they can be accessed via a link.”

They are now testing the feature with a small number of partners – the article mentions some of the first to jump in, and links to a page where you can join a wait list.  It did not say if there will be a fee.

In other news, Facebook reported a change to their News feed algorithm  MediaPost reported that it now takes into account the time a user spends on an article: “Facebook is once again fiddling with its News Feed algorithm — this time to give more play to posts that users spend more time viewing.”

Facebook and Unbalanced? Controversy Highlights Growing News Clout

Bernie Sanders recently called for a liberal version of Fox News.  A growing chorus of conservatives say direction-654123_1920that this exists – in the form of Facebook.

As the New York Times reported:

“Facebook scrambled on Monday to respond to a new and startling line of attack: accusations of political bias.  The outcry was set off by a report on Monday morning by the website Gizmodo, which said that Facebook’s team in charge of the site’s ‘trending’ list had intentionally suppressed articles from conservative news sources. The social network uses the trending feature to indicate the most popular news articles of the day to users.”

I have no idea if the accusation has merit.  It does seem clear that as social networks play a larger role in shaping the news, they will be subject to this kind of scrutiny.  And PR will increasingly seek to influence the stories that result.

Hack the Art at Creative Tech Week

This topic was cross-posted on

My local tech networking and meetup wanderings took me to a cool destination last night – the opening party of Creative Tech Week, at the Clemente Center on the Lower East Side.

I had been invited to CTW and did not quite know what to expect. What is all this about a mashing up creativity and tech? Do we really need another dot dot dot Week? According to the website:

From VR, 3D printing and hackathons to fashion tech, data visualization, digital art, interactive installations and STEAM, Creative Technology is front and center in innovation success stories across the corporate and non-profit landscape. Creative Tech Week… is a crowd sourced festival created to showcase the cutting-edge research, art, media, and community initiatives being generated in the field of creative technology.

The evening’s speakers broke it down further. Founder and President Isabel Davis spoke about the festival, and how it all came together over the past year. CTW It is an extremely ambitious undertaking, spanning ten days, two boroughs, and hundreds of lectures, satellite events, demos and art installations. There is an expo, and three hubs: Community, Arts, and Industry (all explained in the About page). The Expo and Community hubs are in Brooklyn; Arts and Industry, in Manhattan.

See this link for more about the impressive team behind CTW. After Isabel spoke, we heard from Asher Remy-Toledo and Mark Bolotin, directors of the Art Hub. They explained their roles, and ties to Hyphen Hub: a center (Hub) that encourages connections (Hyphen) between art and tech. CTW Co-founder Dawn Barber (also co-founder of NY Tech Meetup) said a few words, before Paolo Antonelli of MoMA took the stage and delivered a great keynote.

In between the talks I had the chance to check out the exhibits at Clemente Center Arts Hub. I was curious about how Arduino, big data visualization, and 3D printing can help create to art. My eyes got wider as I checked out Arduino-driven hammers that smash plexiglass; computer-driven musical instruments, sculptures, videos and images.

If it all sounds a little gimmicky, the results were anything but; they were IMG_2749stunning and brilliant, as you can tell from the images. One of the most eye-grabbing (some might say shocking) was a wall of what looked to be ghostly white PVC plastic phalli that go up or down based on the price swings of associated stocks (it looked to be a heavy trading day).

It is not just about eye candy or art; there are many weighty topics and impressive speakers throughout the festival (which started 4/29 and will end this Saturday), addressing subjects that aim to connect art, design, community, tech and industry.

Here is the schedule. I will try to get to a bunch of the sessions over the remaining days, and encourage you to check it out; there is just so much good stuff here.

How to Pitch an Algorithm

android-161184_1280 calculator-695084_1280The Wall Street Journal had an interesting op-ed this week. The Algorithm is the EditorJeffrey Herbstandroid-161184_1280 android-161184_1280wrote: “Social media companies quickly are becoming the dominant news providers… Four in 10 adults in America now get news from Facebook and one in 10 from Twitter.”

Similarly, WGBH News posted an article: How Facebook Became our Biggest News Publisher – and Why we Should be Worried.

The articles warn about the implications of tech companies becoming news organizations, vs. the distribution channels they claim to be; their newsfeeds increasingly determine what we see.

If the algorithm is now the editor, how long will it be before PR people become code-driven bots (cue up sarcastic comments about PR)?

I have not tried to pitch an algorithm recently (well, ever); and it might not be obvious for many of us in the field how to deal with these new realities.  Does our job as PR pros end after we get our clients in an article?  What if the story does not make the feed?

The New York Times argues that media need to become more data-driven to survive:

“Hooking people on your… news  is [hard]… But news organizations have ways they never had before to figure it out… Through real-time analytics, reporters and editors know how many people are reading their work and through which devices and sites, how long those readers are sticking with it, and what they’re ignoring.”

In other words, online media are now getting ratings… and publishers can learn from them. So, what gets attention and survives the social filter?  The article continues:

“Videos, podcasts, short items of interest that can be read easily on smartphones, and almost anything with ‘Trump’ rate well. Perhaps counterintuitively, deeply reported features and investigative pieces…  draw readership levels that were never possible in the print-only era.”

The last part validates my post Wonky Articles Trump other Forms of Content.

Despite the title of this post, I do not suggest that you go out and pitch an algorithm.  I do recommend becoming more data driven.  Get smart about the new ways in which content and news get shared and consumed.  Apply this insight to make sure that your coverage makes the cut.


What Does it mean to Hack a Feed, and why Should PR Care?

So what does it really mean, to “hack the feed”? Here are some of the key ideas, from articles that I wrote wireless-155910_1280for Flack’s Revenge, MarketingProfs and Entrepreneur.

This is an excerpt from the first:

“If you are interviewing PR agencies, a good question to ask is: ‘what business are you in?’ If they say: ‘Getting you media coverage, building visibility,’ politely show them the door.

The reason is that any agency worth its salt knows that press coverage will happen.  But in a sea of noise and info choices, it is the ability to break through and connect with audiences that makes the critical difference. In short, the correct answer is the ‘attention business’.  And getting attention – quality attention – is getting more challenging every day.”

The second story said:

“Sure, many still turn on the TV to stay on top of current events, pick up a newspaper or magazine, or type in the URL of their favorite news site. But, more often than not, they are getting news from aggregators, sharers, and curators—whether via algorithms (in the case of LinkedIn and Facebook), from their friends on Twitter, or via professional curators such as Huffington Post and BuzzFeed.

Where does that leave you if you are readying a launch or you have news to promote? To get the attention of your intended audience, you need to understand how and where they get information—and work hard to ensure that your news is right there.”

The third piece further explains:

“Much of the problem has to do with information overload. How do people cope? We scan. We prioritize. We note what’s trending. Google and the social networks track our content engagement, and adjust news feeds accordingly. People stir the content soup in myriad ways and, in doing so, affect their popularity.

The result is that the architecture of content and news distribution has changed. It’s no longer primarily top down. Sure, big media still has reach and influence, but the revolution is by and large user-driven, with a healthy dose of platform and algorithmic selection thrown in.”

The challenges are clear – info overload, media fragmentation, changing information flows and consumption trends – what is the solution? The above stories provide some answers.  I urge you to click the links and read them.

But if it were so easy, we wouldn’t need a whole blog like this to break it down – right?!!

The Hack the Feed ethos is not about hacking in the black hat sense. It embraces technology solutions – but is driven by an understanding that you must start with information consumer – and communicate on their terms.  It is about earning a place in increasingly inundated attention spans, breaking through with content that is read, makes an impression and inspires action.

Publish Blog Content on Facebook – in an Instant

Why try to hack a feed when there’s an open invitation to join one?facebook-388078_1920

Facebook introduced Instant Articles last year to speed access to publisher content.  Clearly, they want to improve the user experience and make the network a stickier, one-stop destination for all information needs (of course, they’re not the only ones packaging news for easy user access – Google offers AMP, or Accelerated Mobile Pages – and there’s Apple News).

If you are after Facebook’s audience, you’ll be happy to know that even smaller blogs can soon publish Instant Articles.  On April 12, every publisher can participate, according to their blog. And TheVerge ran a piece that said even small WordPress sites can jump on board – which is welcome news for those who blog as an extension of PR and marketing.

This Social Media Examiner article offers a step-by-step approach. You will need a Facebook Page, the Facebook Pages App to preview articles, an RSS feed that displays full text, and to mark up your blog (WordPress users can do this with the PageFrog plugin). You need at least 50 articles to submit at the beginning.

Good luck and happy Facebook Instant Articles publishing!! Would love to hear about your thoughts and experiences as you check it out.

Instagram, another news feed to hack

News broke yesterday about changes to Instagram’s news feed.  As noted on their blog:instagram-1183715_1280

“To improve your experience, your feed will soon be ordered to show the moments we believe you will care about the most… The order of photos and videos in your feed will be based on the likelihood you’ll be interested in the content, your relationship with the person posting and the timeliness of the post.”

This means, of course, that an algorithm will determine what you see.

The new functionality will be introduced in the “coming months.”  It follows Twitter’s recent change to an algorithm-based timeline.

Ragan’s PR Daily covered the news, and included comments from tech journalists:

Techcrunch reporter Josh Constine wrote that “getting seen on social media will become more of a competition than ever.”

It’s not only the average Instagram user who will fight to be seen, either. Constine explained that brand managers stand to lose their reach on Instagram, just like many business pages did when Facebook changed its algorithm….

Wired reporter Julia Greenberg wrote that Instagram is probably moving to an algorithmic feed to bolster its users’ activity, especially since Instagram’s interaction rate was down almost 40 percent last year.

Greenberg said the move is not only to gain and keep users’ attention—the goal of any social media platform—but also to make Instagram attractive for marketers. 

Digiday wrote about the winners and losers. Topping the list are Instagram’s ad business and your sister’s baby photos. They deemed Twitter to be the top loser (is that an oxymoron).  Seems Twitter can’t catch a break.

Welcome to Hack The Feed

With this post I launch Hack the Feed, a blog dedicated to leading edge PR strategies.code-707069_1920 (2)

What does it mean to be on the leading edge? Who in PR would claim the trailing edge?

Many think of press coverage when it comes to PR.  We’ve never been just about media relations – yet this is still the bread and butter for many PR agencies. And most who employ PR hope that it will do its fair share to meet short (read: sales) and long term business goals.

But It is harder than ever to get media to care about pitches and press releases. And when you are successful, and they do write – well, the earned media hit does not drive the same results any more. The servers don’t often come crashing down from a major hit.

Here are other relevant trends:

  • People are overloaded with content choices. So, they become content grazers and scanners and tune much out.
  • Buyers have many ways to get smart about products and services – they don’t need the media to stay informed.
  • There’s a growing tech influence, with the major social platforms, Apple and Google determining what shows on our screens and in news feeds.
  • Users increasingly determine the flow and popularity of info.

They give rise to the following questions:

  • What works better than mass blasts and relying on the media to build buzz and draw attention?
  • How can you craft content, news and campaigns that get noticed and produce results?

HTF is a blog dedicated to updating practices and communicating effectively in today’s info-saturated world.

The HTF ethos embraces technology solutions – but is driven by an understanding that you must start with information consumer – and approach them on their terms.

You can come here to read about topics as diverse as word choice and storytelling to social network analysis, memetics and news feed optimization.   The topics are united under the singular focus of communications that connect. It is about hacking attention spans, breaking through with content that is read, makes an impression and inspires action.

Does this sound interesting? Please subscribe to this blog and become part of the community.