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Would you rather have Apple’s human editors filtering your news or Facebook’s algorithms?

June 15, 2015, 10:23 PM UTC

Not content to let Facebook swoop in and become the central distribution platform for news with its “Instant Articles” partnerships with major publishers, Apple launched itself into the media sphere at its recent developers conference. There the company announced a dedicated news app—complete with ad-revenue sharing deals with dozens of leading media companies, such as the New York Times.

There’s a key difference between the two offerings, however: in keeping with the algorithm-driven nature of the giant social network, Facebook’s news feature will be almost completely automated. Publishers can format their articles in a certain way using the site’s markup language and they will appear in the news-feed just like anything else, with their placement and ranking determined by Facebook’s software.

Apple, however, seems to want to make human beings the most important factor in its News app— both in terms of the selection of stories and their ranking. As my colleague Kia Kokalitcheva reported earlier, the company posted a job listing that says it is looking for multiple editors to work on the Apple News team and help select the news stories that users will see. The ad says Apple wants:

“Passionate, knowledgeable editors to help identify and deliver the best in breaking national, global, and local news. These editors will help News users find the best and most timely coverage of major news events, while also managing select categories based on their areas of professional expertise. The role requires the ability to manage relationships with some of the world’s finest publishers, to work seamlessly with an international team, and to craft compelling email newsletters.”

In addition to filtering breaking news reports for the best content, these editors will also be responsible for topic verticals— think business, sports, technology, etc.— based on their background and expertise. They will be not only working with media partners, but also putting together email newsletters and presumably other media products as well. That sounds a lot like what editors do at a traditional newspaper or magazine, except, of course, that this one happens to be owned by Apple.

Apple says it wants these editors to “be able to recognize original, compelling stories unlikely to be identified by algorithms.” Of course, it’s entirely possible that Apple’s focus could stem from the fact that its algorithms simply aren’t as good as Facebook’s. Even some fans of news-filtering and recommendation algorithms would argue that they have limits: Gabe Rivera, who founded the popular technology-news aggregator Techmeme, used algorithms exclusively until 2008, when he admitted that this approach was simply not good enough and hired human editor/curators.

For its part, Facebook maintains that its algorithm doesn’t deliberately hide or promote certain things in the feeds of users, it simply determines what to show a user based on their past behavior and interests. Whether that’s true or not, however, the outcome is the same. Critics like sociologist and social-media expert Zeynep Tufekci say Facebook’s approach carries with it the risk that some users will never see information that could affect their awareness of certain important social or political issues.

And that’s just one of the risks. The other is that Apple and Facebook are both corporations with shareholders and fiduciary duties and financial responsibilities— they aren’t journalistic organizations, or even media entities, at least not in the way most people traditionally understand that term. How do we know what criteria they will use to decide what to show us and what not to show us, or whether that criteria is journalistically defensible? And most importantly, how will we know what we haven’t seen?