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EPA-EFE/Monica M Davey

Facebook cuts back on news to give you more time with advertisers

Dear friends, it’s not us, it’s you. You are the problem. You’ve stopped sharing every intimate detail of your lives and we can’t monetise you as well as we’d like. So we’re changing our relationship to convince you to share more, so we can show you more ads.

Not an exact quote from Mark Zuckerberg, of course, but a rough translation. In a statement released on January 12, the company’s founder announced new changes to the platform’s news feed that would prioritise posts from friends and family over content posted by news organisations and businesses.

News and other content will appear less in people’s newsfeeds, unless it is shared by users and widely commented on. The company also said it would amend its rankings to only show “quality news” – though it did not give details of what that might mean.

Advertising will not be affected – you will still be bombarded with ads whether you want them or not – and whether they are relevant to you or not.

Zuckerberg said the new changes were designed to make the platform better. “By focusing on bringing people closer together – whether it’s with family and friends, or around important moments in the world – we can help make sure that Facebook is time well spent,” he said in a post to the Facebook site.

But let’s be clear, the tech giant’s latest move to change its algorithm to encourage more personal interaction is not about us – it’s about money.

Facebook has been worried for months about its “context collapse” problem. Users have become much more wary about posting personal details online and, as people’s newsfeeds fill with content produced by publishers and other influencers, audiences have become passive consumers rather than sharers.

Research from the US shows that adults spend about 50 minutes a day on the social networking giant – though reports suggest that this is decreasing. Facebook’s audience is also ageing, as – for some time now – younger users are turning to rivals such as Snapchat to share their lives.

Monetising audiences

Facebook’s business model is built around selling vast amounts of our data – highly sophisticated representations of our digital selves and our emotions – to advertisers. But increasingly Facebook users are posting links to third party websites – such as news and infotainment – and less about their personal lives.

The company has been working for some time to try to encourage more personal sharing. The “On this Day” feature, for example, was an effort to encourage users to share sentimental updates about themselves. There is no accounting for sentiment, though, as On That Day you might have lost a loved one or been sacked from your job.

Audiences have been seeing more reminders in their newsfeeds to reach out to friends on birthdays and special occasions, and more suggested posts prompting users to share their lives online. By accessing content on users’ phones, Facebook has also been trying to convince you to share more. Images you may have taken on your phone are included as suggested posts, for example. Facebook Live, similarly, has been heavily pushed to encourage personal sharing.

For nervous news publishers, this is ulcer territory. Many are worried they will see their traffic fall off a cliff in the coming weeks as Facebook effectively turns off the tap and all but removes their content from audience newsfeeds.

Chasing eyeballs

A small number of niche news brands that are making a significant return on investment from digital platforms have gone behind a paywall and, as a result, have kept an arms-length relationship with social media. Content is available to share, some content is free to read, but they are not as reliant on ad revenue from social media traffic.

But most of the rest of the news media has invested heavily in building up a Facebook presence – and in staffing and technology to support that social strategy. Desperate editors have been chasing audiences on social media, feeling secure in the hope that the millions of hits they were getting online from social media traffic would somehow translate into a viable business model. It hasn’t.

Instead it has strengthened Facebook’s position as gatekeeper, while adding hugely to the tech giant’s bottom line. Facebook, along with Google, enjoys a near monopoly position in the digital sphere, with an estimated 84% of the total online ad spending in 2017 going to the two companies.

Facebook operates with near impunity, highly protective of its all-important rankings algorithm. It has become the world’s biggest information sharing site, but can control at an individual level what two billion people see on their newsfeeds on a daily basis.

Democratic deficit

There is an overriding democratic concern here: Facebook effectively has the power to shut down news it doesn’t like. There is no suggestion it is doing so, but we should all be worried that this level of power is vested in one company.

Facebook’s latest move effectively means that if publishers want their content seen by audiences, they will have to pay Facebook via advertising – or negotiate new deals that will further erode their editorial independence, and enhance Facebook’s market dominance.

It does nothing to stop the spread of so-called “fake news” – in fact it ingrains the problem. While there is no silver bullet, Facebook’s efforts to date on fake news have so far been lamentable – as I have written here before. There is a real danger that the new ranking changes will exacerbate that problem.

Highly sharable content that attracts lots of debate and commentary – the kind that Facebook wants to encourage – may not be true, fair, balanced or accurate, and certainly may not be verified.

This is dangerous territory for news publishers. The “filter bubble” phenomenon, whereby audiences only ever see content that matches their preferences, will grow.

Worst of all, opposing views and important debates – the very serendipity of the newspaper itself – may be lost forever in the new social media world.

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