WITH AN EYE ON PAST PROB­LEMS, FACE­BOOK EX­PANDS LO­CAL FEA­TURE

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Face­book is cau­tiously ex­pand­ing a fea­ture that shows peo­ple lo­cal news and in­for­ma­tion, in­clud­ing miss­ing-per­son alerts, road clo­sures, crime re­ports and school an­nounce­ments.

Called “To­day In,” the ser­vice shows peo­ple in­for­ma­tion from their towns and cities from such sources as news out­lets, gov­ern­ment en­ti­ties and com­mu­nity groups. Face­book launched the ser­vice in Jan­uary with six cities and ex­panded that to 25, then more. On Wed­nes­day, “To­day In” is ex­pand­ing to 400 cities in the U.S. — and a few oth­ers in Aus­tralia.

The move comes as Face­book tries to shake off its rep­u­ta­tion as a hot­bed for mis­in­for­ma­tion and elec­tions-med­dling and rather a place for com­mu­ni­ties and peo­ple to come to­gether and stay in­formed.

Face­book isn’t pay­ing any­one to in­clude posts, nor can a busi­ness or group pay to be listed — at least for now. “To­day In” is the brain­child of the Face­book Jour­nal­ism project, a broad un­der­tak­ing to boost the news in­dus­try, in­clud­ing lo­cal news. Of course, Face­book, along with other in­ter­net com­pa­nies, is partly to blame for the de­cline of lo­cal print news­pa­pers.

Here are some things to know about this ef­fort, and why it mat­ters:

THE BIG PIC­TURE

It’s some­thing users have asked for, the com­pany says. Think of it as an evo­lu­tion of a “trend­ing” fea­ture the com­pany dropped ear­lier this year . That fea­ture, which showed news ar­ti­cles that were pop­u­lar among users, was rife with such prob­lems as fake news and ac­cu­sa­tions of bias.

Anthea Wat­son Strong, prod­uct man­ager for lo­cal news and com­mu­nity in­for­ma­tion, said her team learned from the prob­lems with that fea­ture.

“We feel deeply the mis­takes of our fore­moth­ers and fore­fa­thers,” she said.

This time around, Face­book em­ploy­ees went to some of the cities they were launch­ing in and met with users. They tried to pre­dict prob­lems by do­ing “pre-mortem” as­sess­ments, she said. That is, in­stead of a “post-mortem” where en­gi­neers dis­sect what went wrong after the fact, they tried to an­tic­i­pate how peo­ple might mis­use a fea­ture — for fi­nan­cial gain, for ex­am­ple.

Face­book isn’t say­ing how long it has been tak­ing this “pre-mortem” ap­proach, though

the prac­tice isn’t unique to the com­pany. None­the­less, it’s a sig­nif­i­cant step given that many of Face­book’s cur­rent prob­lems stem from its fail­ure to fore­see how bad ac­tors might coopt the ser­vice.

Face­book also hopes the fea­ture’s slow roll­out will pre­vent prob­lems.

HOW IT WORKS

To find out if “To­day In” is avail­able in your city or town, tap the “menu” icon with the three hor­i­zon­tal lines. Then scroll down un­til you see it. You can choose to see the lo­cal up­dates di­rectly in your news feed.

For now, the com­pany is of­fer­ing this only in small and mid-sized cities such as Con­roe, Texas, Mor­gan­town, West Vir­ginia, and Santa Fe, New Mex­ico. Large cities such as New York or Los An­ge­les have added chal­lenges, such as an abun­dance of news and in­for­ma­tion, and may need to be bro­ken up into smaller neigh­bor­hoods.

The posts in “To­day In” are cu­rated by ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence; there is no hu­man in­volve­ment. The ser­vice ag­gre­gates posts from the Face­book pages for news or­ga­ni­za­tions, gov­ern­ment agen­cies and com­mu­nity groups like dog shel­ters. For this rea­son, a kid couldn’t de­clare a snow day, be­cause “To­day In” re­lies on the school’s of­fi­cial page. Dis­cus­sion posts from lo­cal Face­book groups may also be in­cluded. Face­book will group posts by sec­tion, such as news, events and group dis­cus­sions.

How Face­book’s al­go­rithms de­cide what to in­clude is an on­go­ing process. For some­one in New Or­leans, “To­day In” posts could come

from The Times-Picayune news­pa­per, the city coun­cil, the pub­lic li­brary, the re­gional tran­sit author­ity or the Face­book group “Where NOLA Eats,” with 42,570 mem­bers. The al­go­rithm looks for some­thing called “lo­cal affin­ity” — Face­book pages whose fol­low­ers live near the en­tity that runs the page.

For now, “To­day In” is tai­lored only by ge­og­ra­phy, but this might change. A per­son with no kids, for ex­am­ple, might not want to see up­dates from schools.

SAFE­GUARDS?

Face­book uses soft­ware fil­ters to weed out ob­jec­tion­able con­tent, just as it does on peo­ple’s reg­u­lar news feed. But the fil­ters are turned up for “To­day In.” If a good friend posts some­thing a bit ob­jec­tion­able, you are still likely to see it be­cause Face­book takes your friend­ship into ac­count. But “To­day In” posts aren’t com­ing from your friends, so Face­book is more likely to keep it out.

Still, as the fea­ture ex­pands, Face­book will have to guard against mis­use, so that fake news and the other prob­lems with the trend­ing tool don’t crop up.

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