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How Facebook shares skew the news with old tat

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Facebook's frictionless sharing apps are dredging up decade-old news stories and putting them at the top of national news sites.

A story about an overworked Oxford student's suicide currently tops the most shared and most viewed lists on the Independent's website despite dating from 1997. “Sean, 12, is the youngest father” (January 1998), and “Scotland’s ugliest woman honoured” (May 1999) are another two that highlight the trend.

They are the latest in several decade-old stories that have shot to the top of the Indy's popularity boxes since the newspaper introduced its Facebook app, which posts a link to all your Facebook friends every time you click on a story.

The net effect is that as everyone piles in from the social network, following links friends have picked, the 'most viewed' lists are skewed towards the most shared: the crowd, effectively, becomes the news editor, no matter how out of date the stories are. The same is happening on the Guardian too, though apparently the paper takes steps to make the shared lists less visible.

It's most likely that the old stories were discovered by chance or a Google search and then spread friend-by-friend on Facebook. The impact of Facebook's so-called frictionless sharing on user privacy has been widely discussed, but these early signs show that "frictionless sharing" - introduced in September this year - could be having an impact on the news too. Certainly on which bits of it people read, anyway.

Stories with catchy headlines have always, er, done well, but the Facebook apps have turbocharged the process by prioritising stories on their viral factor rather than their timeliness or importance.

It tallies with reports from newspapers of how their Facebook apps have boosted page views, almost doubling traffic to the Independent from Facebook, for example. The papers, eager for any readers, will obviously be happy with the page views, but it is making them look a bit silly.

Perhaps Facebook will start include the date of stories in shares, but even then it's just another part of the web jostling and reshaping the press. ®

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