Can Algorithms Replace Human Editors?

editor1Facebook’s trending news algorithm failed spectacularly; other sites are still giving it a try. Are they misguided?

Can an algorithm replace human editors when it comes to curating a news feed?

The question is making the rounds in the industry, as publishers and platforms search for ways to get ahead of trends without sacrificing quality. And the industry is leaning toward a resounding “no.”

“Facebook controversially replaced human editors with algorithms to decide its trending topics last month, but the move backfired when it inadvertently published several fake and inaccurate stories,” writes Gurjit Degun in Campaign.

“[Elle’s UK editor-in chief Lorraine] Candy said editors draw on ‘years and years of journalistic experience’ and use their ‘unrivalled access’ to decide the content of a magazine,” Degun continues.

Others stress that the data is of primary importance.

“Algorithms can contemplate a much broader set of input data to determine what is currently trending and what captures the cultural zeitgeist,” said Ross Jenkins of Mullen-Lowe Mediahub Performance. “Imagine having up-to-the-millisecond data on every trending search keyword, every trending hashtag, everything being pinned on Pinterest.”

Candy argues that yes, of course they look at analytics (saying they’d be “absolutely insane” not to), but stressed that sometimes the data is inaccurate or goes down a path that’s inappropriate for the publisher or their partners, so they ignore it.

Some point out that Facebook’s algorithms and similar trending newsfeeds create an “echo chamber” effect, feeding readers more of what they already like, and leaving little room for exposure to differing points of voice.

Tom Darlington of Goodstuff Communication puts it beautifully, saying “There is a difference between information that is popular and information that is important. Algorithms have a proven record in the distribution of the former but not the latter. Human editors will always be vital in the distribution of new, important ideas.”

For publishers, we believe it comes down to how much they value their readers; hopefully they believe it’s worth the resources to provide editorial integrity in their curation efforts.