In early 2018, nearly two years after Facebook’s historically botched performance in the 2016 presidential election, the social media giant was still grappling with the fallout.
It had yet to fully realize ― let alone stymie ― the scope of Russian disinformation efforts on its platform. Its users were sharing less and less. It was increasingly seen as an alarming new source of the very global division and violence that CEO Mark Zuckerberg dreamed it would solve. (And things were about to get worse with the onslaught of news about privacy failures that began with Cambridge Analytica.)
So in January of last year, Facebook brass rolled out an algorithmic overhaul, one Zuckerberg promised would lead to “more meaningful social interactions.” In non-public relations speak, that meant posts from friends and family would reach more eyeballs, while the reach of content from media outlets deemed less “trustworthy” would be drastically reduced.
Facebook refused to share those “trustworthiness” scores with the news outlets whose business models depended on them or even release information on how the scores were calculated. But a new feature in Wired magazine, published Tuesday, offers a not-at-all reassuring glimpse at what went on behind the scenes.
The company stumbled from the start, even in defining what “news” is, leaving that decision to a group of product engineers. Per Wired, the engineers decided that stories about “politics, crime, or tragedy” constituted news. Everything else ― literally everything else ― wasn’t “news” and would therefore be demoted. This classification was reviewed and approved by senior managers.
As a result, content producers predisposed to politics, crime and tragedy saw their Facebook referrals grow, while others ― writing about, say, business or the environment or technology or advances in science ― saw their traffic shrivel.
By September of 2018, Facebook realized that, rather than boost trustworthiness, its efforts may have had the opposite effect. Here’s Wired:
[T]he company could tell that the changes it had introduced at the beginning of the year hadn’t had the intended effect of slowing the political venom pulsing through the platform. In fact, by giving a slight tailwind to politics, tragedy, and crime, Facebook had helped build a news ecosystem that resembled the front pages of a tempestuous tabloid. Or, for that matter, the front page of FoxNews.com.
According to data compiled by the social media analytics firm Newswhip, Fox News that month was Facebook’s top news publisher. Per Newswhip’s most recent report in February 2019, Fox News still claims the broadest reach on the platform, with 45.4 million engagements that month ― all this while Republican politicians claim that conservatives are being censored on the platform.
If anything, Wired’s feature suggests that Facebook intentionally gives conservative voices extra leeway, fearing that users might accuse it of being too liberal. That partially explains its odd delay in banning conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones, even as he pushed hateful, harmful nonsense on the site, and prominent white nationalists like Faith Goldy.
While Facebook also made efforts to boost the reach of trustworthy local news, so far they have not been effective, nor are they likely to be. In the last 15 years, roughly 1,800 newspapers have closed in the U.S. as Facebook and Google vacuumed up nearly 60% of digital ad revenue, starving profits from an already struggling industry.
Last week, Facebook conceded that it couldn’t find enough local news to boost as part of its “Today In” service, which aims to increase readership of local news outlets. Instead, the company found 1 in 3 users live in “news deserts” ― regions where Facebook couldn’t find at least five local news items to share in a single day over the last month.
There’s reason to be more optimistic about a second effort, announced earlier this year, in which Facebook has pledged $300 million in grants for local newsrooms and nonprofits. Fran Wills, CEO of the Local Media Consortium, which together with the Local Media Association, is receiving $1 million to help develop new revenue streams for its members, told the Associated Press that it’s a step in the right direction.