When News Breaks, How Does Facebook React?

By Justin Lafferty 

The recent tragedy at the Boston Marathon showed the expanding role of social media when it comes to the spreading of news. As Facebook users shared stories, photos, and videos, news sources worked hard to make sure the stories they posted were true. Representatives from ABC News and The Huffington Post talked with AllFacebook recently to discuss how they run their Facebook pages as news changes rapidly, such as during the bombing at the Boston Marathon and the search for the suspects.

AllFacebook: What is the first step that is taken with regard to Facebook when a major news story first breaks?

Andrew Springer, senior editor for social media, ABC News: The very first thing we want to do is tell our users what’s going on — what ABC News has confirmed. Then our team starts scouring social media (including Facebook) to help us find information, photos, videos, and witnesses.

Dean Praetorius, senior editor, HuffPost: The first step, especially for us, is to simply get all of your ducks in a row. The more serious the situation becomes, the more you clamp down. Once we know a situation is serious enough, like once the bombings on Monday became more than Twitter chatter, we essentially scrap whatever we have in the queue and prepare to move forward on what we have.

AllFacebook: With so much information (and misinformation) flying around social media, how do you determine what is valid and good to post on Facebook?

Praetorius: Well, for one, we’re going to give preference to our own content on our own pages in these situations. That’s not for traffic purposes, but because if we’re willing to run it on our site, we should be willing to promote on social media, especially around breaking news. The same can’t be said for content from other sources. Twitter moves fast, and it’s easy to do short updates and know they won’t stay in the public eye very long. Facebook, however, especially because of the lifespan of a post, requires a bit more patience. Ultimately, there’s a reason those who contribute to our feeds are called editors. They’re supposed to use their editorial judgement to appropriately frame any story.

Springer: We’ve set up a social media desk that gets activated in breaking news. We take the lead for the news division on verifying and getting permission to use pictures, videos, and accounts from social media. It is critical that our users can trust what we are putting out, so we only post to Facebook what ABC News confirms. We’d much rather be right than be first.

AllFacebook: How are comments moderated in times like this?

Springer: Our social team monitors the conversation happening on our page, flagging when appropriate for our editors at digital and broadcast producers questions and comments from our users. We look to those comments for a better understanding of our users, what they’re interested in, and what they are confused about. We’re also concerned with private messages sent to our page.

Praetorius: On-site comments go through strict moderation, both through our back-end machine-learning system, JuLiA, and human moderators. I’m not the best person to talk to about on-site moderation — we have a separate team for that — but I can say simply that there’s quite obviously a high alert. Facebook comments, however, go unmoderated for the most part. There aren’t great tools on hand in regards to moderating Facebook comments at our volume (and I sincerely wish there were), so in times like this, when we’re focused on the news at hand, people are responsible for their own commentary. That said, we don’t moderate Facebook much at all, so it’s much less of an issue for us than some others.

AllFacebook: What kind of strategy is in place for Facebook posting during major developing stories?

Praetorius: Not going to give away all of our secrets, but a variety of content types and links to other orgs is key in this situation. No one source can provide complete coverage, but Facebook is a great place to take things from all across the spectrum and become a hub for coverage. We do that on-site, as well, but we don’t hesitate to push directly to sources on Facebook. Another important angle is that Facebook allows us to actually be of service in these situations. When the photos of the suspects were officially posted, we distributed them on Facebook, essentially using the power of virality to help authorities in a responsible manner. Otherwise, our strategy is to keep things clean, follow the story closely, and be sure to use all of the tools Facebook puts at our disposal to paint a full picture of the story.

Dan Milano, social media editor, ABC News: Our strategy, across the news division, is to make the most of whatever platform we’re using. Just as we try to create compelling television, we work to identify what will work best across all of our social platforms. We’re relying more than ever on photographs and albums to tell stories on Facebook. One great advantage to photographs in breaking news is that captions can be edited and we can keep our users up to date with the latest information. With link posts (and, indeed, tweets) this isn’t a possibility. But it’s an evolving process, and at the heart of the decision is what is most important for our users to know right away.

Readers: How often do you look to Facebook to get updates on breaking news stories?

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.