What has Facebook announced?
The company is altering the algorithm that runs the news feed, which displays a computer-curated selection of posts from other users and Facebook pages. No longer will it prioritise “helping you find relevant content”, says the site’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg. The new goal is to help you “have more meaningful interactions”.
What will change?
Today, most people’s news feeds are dominated by professionally made content from brands, businesses and the news media. Zuckerberg says Facebook wants to change that balance, so your feed will instead be dominated by posts from friends and family, as well as Facebook groups you are a member of.
The change is not yet in effect, so it is hard to know how different this approach will be. At its most extreme, it could be similar to the “experiment” Facebook ran in six smaller countries, where it removed wholesale any post from professional publishers and put them in a second feed, the “explore” feed.
But if Facebook wants to take a light-touch approach, the effect could be more like other tweaks to the news feed algorithm, which subtly alter the balance of content, changing the types of posts which have the most success but not removing them entirely.
Why is it doing this?
Zuckerberg says Facebook has studied academic research and concluded that social media is only good for users’ wellbeing if they use it to “connect with people we care about”. In November, the company published a post that claimed “passive” social media use could be harmful, arguing instead for a more active and communal approach to the site.
As a result, Zuckerberg says, Facebook wants to promote the sorts of posts that encourage those interactions, while demoting those its data shows encourage only surface interactions – likes and shares but little else.
The change will bring Facebook other benefits. By diminishing the influence of news media, it may be able to avoid a repeat of the bad press it received during the 2016 US election when it became a breeding ground for “fake news”, helping spread stories that misled millions.
And the company has long displayed concern over the decline in “organic sharing” – users posting content about their own lives, rather than simply sharing links to the wider web or professionally produced videos and photos. Users are more likely to share details about their own lives if they see others doing the same, and so promoting organic content begets more organic content.
What are the wider ramifications?
Some publishers and civil society groups have reacted with alarm. In Guatemala, one of the countries where the explore feed experiment took place, some journalists reported readership halving overnight as a result of them disappearing from most social media feeds. A similar change worldwide would wreak havoc on the media ecosystem, as well as the ability of activists and campaigners to have a voice with the wider public.
But the pain will not be shared equally. Past experience suggests the organisations that will be most damaged will be those who rely most on Facebook to generate traffic; organisations with a dedicated base and control of their own platforms will find it easier to ride out the change.
Has Facebook done something like this before?
In December 2013, Facebook changed its algorithm to promote “high-quality articles” over “a meme photo hosted somewhere other than Facebook”. In the process, it also took aim at publishers who produced content that was too appealing. The social news site Upworthy saw its traffic halve in the month after the algorithm change, a decline it has never quite recovered from.
Similar changes have happened over the years as Facebook decided to focus on promoting “instant articles”, a type of Facebook native content; to pivot to promoting video; to pivot from video to live video; and to pivot from live video to Facebook groups, the company’s most recent attempt to build a stronger sense of community.
What other troubles is Facebook dealing with?
The company has been fighting a pair of awkward court cases in Ireland and Austria. In the former, it has been accused of negligence in a revenge porn case involving a 14-year-old girl; in the latter, it has been ordered to more proactively remove hate speech, rather than simply waiting to be told of its existence.
What’s happened in Ireland?
The girl in question had been the target of a “shame page” for almost two years on the site, with naked photographs of her repeatedly posted between November 2014 and January 2016. On Tuesday, Facebook agreed to an out-of-court settlement, a rare act for a company that typically argues it has diminished responsibility for content posted on its site by others. The girl’s lawyer, Pearse MacDermott, said the settlement “now puts the onus on the provider to look at how they respond to indecent, abusive and other such images put on their platform. Whenever an image is put up that is clearly objectionable they should be able to stop that ever going up again.”
And in Austria?
Hate speech targeting the former head of the Austrian Green party is at issue, and the question is again whether Facebook has a responsibility to act more broadly when it takes content down, including whether it should actively search for reposts of the content and delete them without being asked. The case has been referred upwards to the European court of justice, whose ruling could have a global impact.