The site’s promotion of “social engagement” has serious repercussions for the media.
Barely a week after Mark Zuckerberg promised to “fix Facebook,” the site’s co-founder and CEO has unveiled the first step in what he hopes will be “a much better trajectory” for the beleaguered social media giant: taking the news out of your news feed.
The first priority on Zuckerberg’s list is a drastic, but perhaps unsurprising, move. In light of ongoing turmoil surrounding “fake news,” Zuckerberg says Facebook will now be moving away from “public content” — including posts from media outlets, brands, and businesses — and toward more shared content from your friends, family, and Facebook groups.
The goal, according to a post about the move on Zuckerberg’s personal Facebook page, is to encourage more meaningful community interaction on Facebook. Active engagement, Facebook says, has been proven through research to increase overall happiness and satisfaction from using the site.
To do this, Zuckerberg says Facebook is dialing back its emphasis on “businesses, brands, and media” in its news feed and returning to promoting shared posts by users — essentially appointing its own individual users, rather than third parties, arbiters of the kind of content that succeeds on Facebook, and returning the platform to the “social” part of social media.
If you’re skeptical about what this means for the site, or for the many media outlets who rely on Facebook news feeds to drive traffic, you’re not alone. But while there’s plenty of reason to be skeptical, there’s also some reason for optimism.
Facebook stripping news from its news feed is arguably a positive development — but it will mean rocky times ahead for many media outlets
Of course, Facebook isn’t completely getting rid of news — though we don’t know exactly how Facebook’s planned changes will play out, it seems reasonable to assume that you’ll still see news in the Trending topics sidebar, in updates from any news outlets you follow on your “Pages” feed, and when you visit their Facebook pages directly. You’ll also still, presumably, see news articles shared by your friends and family. But the news feed itself will now show far fewer articles and branded content.
This is a move Zuckerberg himself acknowledges will probably, at least temporarily, decrease engagement and time spent on Facebook. But, he writes, “I also expect the time you do spend on Facebook will be more valuable.” He cites sports and TV fandom communities as an example of what he sees as valuable engagement — a far cry from the sort of ideological polarization that has increasingly come to characterize social media as a whole.
The Atlantic’s Franklin Foer branded the move “an admission of defeat,” an acknowledgment that Facebook’s contentious attempts to control its news feeds, first through content curators and then through algorithms, has largely been a disaster. Foer hailed Zuckerberg’s announcement as a major step forward — and away from Facebook’s accidental role as a publisher. “Credit to Mark Zuckerberg,” Foer wrote. “He’s made a decision that might adversely impact his revenue for the sake of the common good.”
Not everyone has celebrated the move. On his blog, CUNY professor Jeff Jarvis, who worked with Facebook on the company’s News Integrity Initiative last year, expressed skepticism that Facebook could so easily deflect its role as a news publisher.
“News and media companies — convinced by Facebook (and in some cases by me) to put their content on Facebook or to pivot to video ,” he wrote, “ will now see their fears about having the rug pulled out from under them realized and they will shrink back from taking journalism to the people where they are having their conversations because there is no money to be made there.”
Meanwhile, advertisers, if forced to choose, will most likely continue to invest in Facebook directly, rather than news outlets that are less likely to reach Facebook readers.
While there’s reason to believe, based on past changes, that media outlets might not see sizable decreases in traffic from Facebook, it’s natural for media outlets to be wary of such a huge and drastic change to the way news posts are treated on Facebook. In the past, even incremental tweaks to the Facebook news feed algorithm have been watched sharply, because they could have drastic effects on media outlets that relied on the site to get their content in front of readers.
While Foer and others argue that breaking out of this reliance on Facebook will ultimately be a good thing for journalism, others, like Jarvis and London School of Economics professor Charlie Beckett, argue that it will be damaging both to the media and to consumers.
Pointing out the essential conflict at the heart of this change, Beckett wrote, “It is clear that emotion is going to be an even bigger driver of attention on Facebook after these changes. The best journalism will continue to be factual and objective at its core — even when it is campaigning or personal.” That puts most journalism inherently at odds with the new, friendlier goals of the site. “Overall,” Beckett noted, “the big picture is that journalism is being de-prioritised in favour of fluffier stuff.”
In other words, in order to play the new Facebook game, media outlets will have to put even more emphasis on creating interpersonal connections with their readers — much as Facebook will be putting more emphasis on encouraging its users to create interpersonal connections with each other.
The big uncertainty underlying this shift is whether prioritizing content shared by users will serve to weed out discredited information or inaccurate posts. It’s possible that an emphasis on posts that generate lots of dialogue will help naturally filter out unreliable sources — but your Facebook feed could just as easily become mired in a sea of endless epistemological disagreements.
Facebook says more “active” consumption will lead to greater user satisfaction. This might be wishful thinking.
In his post, Zuckerberg says that Facebook has research showing that people are happier when they actively engage with the content they consume on Facebook. This holds true when their engagement involves interaction with other humans on Facebook, rather than merely “passively” consuming the content through silent likes or shares.
But if actively engaging with your friends and relatives on Facebook around the content you’re both sharing and reacting to sounds like your idea of hell, you’re not alone: Numerous academic studies over the years have shown that increased Facebook use corresponds to an increase in depression, low self-esteem, and general unhappiness, regardless of whether one’s usage is passive or active.
So where is Facebook getting the idea that more active engagement will boost happiness? Well … from Facebook itself, because the research Zuckerberg cites in his post was conducted by Facebook.
There are other corroborating studies showing that people feel better when they update their statuses more often, receive positive or supportive feedback on Facebook, and generally use social media profiles to repair their sense of self-worth. However, these studies also indicate that the correlation between unhappiness and passive Facebook use seems to be “more robust” than the correlation between happiness and active Facebook use.
In other words, active use of Facebook may make people happier, but not that much happier, especially compared to how unhappy passive use of Facebook could make them.
Obviously, Facebook can’t dismantle social media itself, and it has no wish to change the fundamental nature of Facebook as a place where people go to post about their lives and read about what their friends are doing.
So it’s going to try to encourage those behaviors at the margins that increase happiness, beginning with making the news feed less about “news” and more about, well, social media — prioritizing posts that generate discussion. Buzzfeed summarized this objective as, “the comment is the new share.”
This is not a one-size-fits-all fix for Facebook
With these changes to its news feed, “Facebook will be back primarily in the business of making us feel terrible about the inferiority of our vacations, the relative mediocrity of our children, teasing us into sharing more of our private selves,” Foer wrote at the Atlantic. “Still, the social tolls of Facebook-induced status anxiety are far less than political tolls of Facebook-reinforced filter bubbles.”
Inevitably, there will be problems with this new model. For instance, a recent investigation by ProPublica found that Facebook’s human content moderators made incorrect decisions on nearly half of comments and posts flagged for hate speech and other offensive content.
Additionally, people have already been known to try to game the engagement-driven system that Facebook is now falling back on — the company recently cracked down on “engagement bait” from users and brands that request likes and shares from readers. Above all, Facebook’s reversion to reliance on individual users to drive content does nothing to address longstanding concerns about echo chambers and “filter bubbles” on the site. Without the ostensibly neutral tone of third-party media outlets on your feeds, these information silos may only get worse.
Still, Facebook’s recognition that its platform has grown dysfunctional is significant. It’s an acknowledgment that at best, Facebook has disrupted users’ typical media consumption patterns, and that at worst it has contributed to a broader onslaught on American democracy.
The changes are a sign that Facebook’s serious about dealing with the problems that have been thrust upon it as the world’s leading social media platform. So, for the average reader at least, no news could be good news.