With the advancement of machine learning, one Beijing-based company, Jinri Toutiao (a.k.a. “Today’s Headlines”), capitalized on the underlying technologies to challenge the “one-feed-fits-all” model of news and information outlets today. Using machine learning to centralize and optimize the distribution of information, Jinri Toutiao (“Toutiao”) created immense value for the modern reader by offering relevant, quality content at a speed and attention level that no human editor is able to achieve.
Launched in 2012, Toutiao became China’s leading mobile app provider of news and other content in just a few short months. Its success is attributable to the machine learning technologies it uses to create newsfeeds specifically tailored to user preferences. According to Vice President Tina Zhao, Toutiao aims “to become the information platform that knows each individual best” with “no two users’ feed lists alike.” Today, Toutiao boasts “~120 million daily active users” who spend, on average, “74 minutes a day” on the app, more than “any other big social platforms in or outside China, including Facebook and WeChat.”
The app generates an initial newsfeed based on information from the user’s profile (e.g. demographics, location, phone model). Then, as users interact with the app, it learns users’ preferences through what they’re reading, time spent on articles, comments and millions of other dimensions. If the user has a tendency to read sports-related news before bed and politics in the morning, the algorithms will learn that nuance and “push” relevant articles to the user during those specific time periods. For most users, the app’s algorithms begin pushing highly relevant recommendations within a day!
As with all machine learning, the platform requires massive amounts of data (e.g. user interaction) to provide the level of precision it needs to generate value for users. Thus, Toutiao continuously scours the web for interesting content to enhance user retention and interaction. In 2013, Toutiao introduced Toutiaohao, a self-publishing platform for professional and individual content creators with the goal of boosting its database’s content quantity and quality. The company now claims “1.2 million Toutiaohao accounts, including media outlets, government services, bloggers, and influencers, who publish ~500,000 pieces daily.” Additionally, during the 2016 Olympics, the company introduced Xiaomingbot, an artificial intelligence that published “450 news items throughout the 15-day event.” Although the content was written in simple English, the rate at which the stories went live, often within a few seconds after the end of an event, garnered global attention. Over time, Toutiao hopes to refine the Xiaomingbot technology to produce more compelling stories.
In addition to content quantity, Toutiao must also ensure content quality as it faces the prevalence of fake news and clickbait content. Its parent company, Bytedance, employs a unique battle strategy – fight fake news with more fake news. Bytedance developed two bots, one that writes its own “fake fake news” by learning from the app’s database of real fake news, and another that is “trained to detect fake news by analyzing its counterpart’s fake newsfeed.” According to Toutiao AI Lab head, Ma Weiying, this “dual-learning” process sets the two bots to “…compete with each other” and “push[es] each other to improve.”
While I applaud Toutiao for its track record in innovation and commitment to content quality, the current improvement process is too dependent upon a database of existing fake news, and thus, the solution is always reactive and potentially prone to human manipulation. Going forward, Toutiao should advance its machine learning technology to be able to proactively filter not only fake news, but sensational articles that live within the gray areas. Critics have noticed that there is a disproportionate amount of “soft news” (e.g. celebrity gossip, pop culture, lifestyle articles) distributed through the app. With Toutiao’s reliance on ad sales, its revenue-sharing program with content creators, and the inherent dangers of algorithm bias, the company should implement safeguards to protect the app from developing into an echo chamber of convergent content. Head of Toutiao’s AI Lab, Lei Li, has previously stated that the machine learning model is designed to “expand [users’] horizons,” offering “some content that the user hasn’t signaled a preference for.” While this brings some level of comfort, it is important that Toutiao continuously assesses the integrity of its platform.
With Toutiao as the main source of information for most users in China nowadays, where and how should Toutiao draw the line between a budding social responsibility to balance hard and soft news and delivering its value proposition of providing curated content for users?
The company recently expanded its censorship team with 2,000 additional hires as Toutiao’s exploding success attracted scrutiny from the Chinese government. Given Toutiao’s immense ability to shape news selection and its colossal database of user data, how should Toutiao navigate China’s complex environment without sacrificing the integrity of its platform?
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