Facebook has announced that it is rolling out a new feature that combines local news and community information, which it says is in response to popular demand, yet some industry observers caution that the social network must ensure the avoidance of “fake news”.

Anthea Watson Strong, product manager for local news and community information at Facebook, revealed in a blog post on Wednesday that the feature, called “Today In”, is now available in more than 400 cities across the US and is also being tested in Australia.

Today In, which aggregates local news and information in a separate section within the Facebook app, had been tested in a small number of US cities over the course of this year and she said accompanying research found that more than half of those surveyed said they wanted more local news and community information on Facebook.

“People who live in a city where Today In is currently available can visit this section directly, and they can choose to turn on local updates to start seeing a collection of local news more regularly in their News Feed,” Watson Strong explained.

“We’ve seen that people value Today In for helping them stay informed about what’s happening nearby, finding information that directly impacts their day, and discovering ways to support their local community through events or volunteer opportunities,” she added.

In addition to expanding the availability of Today In, which an interactive map shows is focused mostly on small to medium-sized cities rather than the likes of New York or San Francisco, Facebook is testing local alerts with more than 100 local government and first responder agencies.

The aim is to provide timely, local updates to alert users to major incidents, such as road closures and natural disasters like Hurricane Florence, which battered the US East Coast in September.

“During Hurricane Florence, 17 first responder pages posted 73 local alerts, providing critical updates to people living in the path of the storm. The City of Charlotte Government is one of our first partners to test local alerts,” said Watson Strong.

However, it is precisely the issue of the accuracy of these local news alerts that has caused some observers to question whether Facebook has the capability to check for misinformation, given its past track record.

“It must closely monitor to make sure they’re using it to provide vital info to their communities rather than just grab traffic at sensitive moments,” commented Josh Constine, a journalist at TechCrunch.

“Facebook already has trouble finding enough third-party fact checkers to verify viral news stories. Now it may expose itself to even more liability to be the arbiter of truth now that it’s fragmented the news space into hundreds of distinct digests.”

Sourced from Facebook, TechCrunch; additional content by WARC staff