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Facebook's Testing a New Local News and Events Section to Prompt Civic Engagement

As part of Facebook’s ongoing effort to ‘bring the world closer together’, The Social Network's working to enhance local communities and groups, in order to foster improved civic engagement. A big part of this will include putting more focus on local events and happenings, which is the inspiration behind Facebook’s latest test – a feed of local news items based on your location.

As reported by Recode, Facebook’s testing a new section called ‘Today in…’ which will highlight the top news stories, events and announcements in your vicinity. Facebook’s trialing the new option in six U.S. cities (New Orleans, Little Rock, Billings, Peoria, Olympia, and Binghamton) – users in these regions will soon see a prompt like the first image in the above sequence alerting them to the option.

Once you click through, you’ll see dedicated listings of local events, news and Facebook groups, which is in line with Facebook’s wider push on Groups as a means to facilitate community engagement.

Indeed, Facebook has made Groups a much bigger focus of late, a shift that’s seen several publishers putting more emphasis on their own branded groups, and reaping the benefits as an alternative to the News Feed.

Facebook will be using a mix of humans and machine learning systems to surface content for this new section, which will no doubt raise the hackles of many. Facebook's long resisted being labeled a media company, but any interference in the content sharing process undoubtedly puts them into the editorial space. If Facebook’s using people to select what qualifies as news, it also opens itself up to accusations of potential bias – which is another element Facebook’s no doubt targeting here, the perceived prevalence of fake or misleading news on the platform.

If Facebook's able to improve civic engagement, while also vetting and showcasing relevant news sources, that could have a two-pronged effect, helping reinforce the platform’s wider mission, while also putting more focus on ‘real’ news, and generating discussion on local topics.

More discussion on local issues – which people are closer to and better able to verify – means less discussion on larger news stories, where people have less access to the actual sources, and therefore less capacity to confirm.

It’s an interesting initiative, with potential to help enliven civic engagement, but it could also be easily relegated to insignificance.

Recode also notes that:

“Facebook plans to alert people in the six test cities that the new feature exists, but after that, “Today In” will appear in the menu () where Facebook has dozens of other lesser-used sections of the app that you might easily forget about.”

How many functions are you aware of that exist solely within the Menu listing? How many do you use regularly?

Of course, this will be based on what the initial tests show – if users respond well to the listing, Facebook will keep showing it to them, and there’s also the possibility that Facebook could replace the regular news section with local news, if it sees significant attention. But if it is relegated to the Menu list, that would lessen the potential impact.