After announcing the first international expansion of its 'Today In' local news update section earlier this month (adding 10 cities in Australia), Facebook has this week announced another extension of the program, with the tool now being made available in over 400 US cities.
As explained by Facebook:
"Today In connects people to local news and information about their community. It is now available in over 400 cities in the US, and we have launched our first international test in Australia. In addition, we have started testing Today In in communities located in news deserts, places that have low supply of local news and community information, by supplementing with relevant content from surrounding areas."
As shown above, the tool provides updates on local news stories, events and group discussions, all aimed at keeping users informed about community happenings, and encouraging participation through relevant prompts.
Facebook first launched 'Today In' back in January - the tool aims to showcase Facebook's 'community good' benefits, as something of an antidote to the fake news and divisive political movements which have now become synonymous with Mark Zuckerberg's creation. Local news, which can be more easily proven, and is likely more relevant to each person, is also generally less divisive, while providing notes on groups to connect with can help enhance involvement and shift users from passive consumption to actual, active engagement.
And definitely, there's a lot of potential in this regard, though it does depend on if and how users see it.
Right now, as shown in the above video, people in regions where the tool is available can opt-in to be shown a News Feed prompt which takes them through the local news of the day, while you can also access 'Today In' from the function menu.
Currently, 'Today In' prompts are switched off by default, which makes sense, but it also likely means that a lot of people either aren't aware of the tool, or they aren't getting regular updates (it's available in my region, and I checked it out when it launched, but haven't done so or seen anything about it again since).
Plenty of people will likely opt-in, and Facebook could use News Feed prompts to boost awareness. But at present, I'm guessing for most people, it's just another function on that list that they never check. It'll be interesting to see the usage stats in a few months time, now that it's available in more regions.
There is also a concern, as noted by TechCrunch, that the tool could be ripe for misuse. The system will pull in local news via algorithm, without human intervention, which could see fake news and misinformation reaching into the listings. Facebook says that it does have 'misinformation filters' in place, and that users can report suspicious content, but given the current issues Facebook is dealing with on this front, it could be a problem. Only time will tell in this respect.
In addition to this, Facebook is also adding a new 'Local Alerts' option which will enable approved local government and first responder Pages to communicate 'time-sensitive and need-to-know information' to people on the platform.
"People tell us it is important to receive timely, local updates in situations that directly affect them or that require them to take action, such as major road closures, blackouts or natural disasters. The local alert label appears in News Feed and Today In, and we are also testing notifications, which participating Pages can target to people who live in the affected areas."
Much like its Breaking News tags, Facebook will put some limits on how local alerts can be used. Pages will be able to post up to 35 local alerts over a rolling 30-day period, and will be able to mark a post as a local alert for up to six hours.
But the system won't necessarily give priority to such updates in feeds:
"This will not affect the ranking of posts in News Feed. Local alerts on Facebook are not meant to replace emergency alert systems."
That seems to somewhat negate the benefit, but Facebook has to also be wary of potential manipulation.
Overall, the impetus of both additions is positive, but it'll be interesting to see what the actual impacts are, and the community benefit that's actually derived from such tools. As noted, there is a lot of potential there, but Facebook may need to make them more prominent to really drive effectiveness. In order to do that, without annoying users, they may also need to make them more targeted - Facebook has the capacity to do this, but it may require significantly more development time, potentially more than they're willing to invest.
But then again, maybe I'm wrong - maybe a heap of users will simply opt-in to the new tool and start getting relevant local updates. The potential is there, it just seems like it needs a little more push to make it more present.
If you want to check whether 'Today In' is available to you, Facebook has also launched an interactive map.