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Facebook to Publishers: Drop (Mostly) Dead

So it’s come to this, Facebook. After more than a year of criticism over election meddling, fake news, online addictions and more, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said he would spend 2018 fixing the problems. Zuckerberg’s cure, however, may be even harder on long-suffering publishers than what they’ve already had to deal with.

“One of our big focus areas for 2018 is making sure the time we all spend on Facebook is time well spent,” Zuckerberg wrote in a post announcing the site’s biggest algorithm changes in years. The intended impact: users will “see more from your friends, family and groups” in News Feeds and fewer posts from businesses and publishers. Those posts from third parties that you do see will favor those encouraging “meaningful interactions between people.”

The changes have been given, to put it charitably, a lukewarm reception. But doing something is way overdue. Even early Facebook investor and Elevation Partners founder Roger McNamee took to three publications, including the Washington Post (owned by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos), to say “fundamental changes” are needed to the company’s current business model,  because the societal whacks caused in the fake news and related scandals are “inherent” to its structure.

Zuckerberg always faced unavoidable, irreconcilable conflicts in fixing his company’s fake news issues: basically, fake news purveyors had hacked the site’s basic profit-making engine.

The hugely successful engine depends on people watching more content, from whatever sources most grab their attention. The stickier the content, the higher the engagement, and the more Facebook makes from advertising. If the engaging content happens to be false and manipulative, well, stuff happens. If the content is more true but also less engaging, Facebook makes less money.

Indeed, Zuckerberg acknowledged the algorithm shift means “the time people spend on Facebook and some measures of engagement will go down.”

And sure enough, the day after Zuckerberg outlined the changes, that acknowledgement sent Facebook stock initially down more than 5 percent from the day before, the biggest decline in more than a year. Shares were still down 4.5 percent by day’s end, though they remain up 41 percent over the past year.

More importantly, for publishers who still depend on Facebook for a huge share of their traffic, have reason to be hugely concerned that engagement for them will really go down as the algorithm rolls out across Facebook’s 2 billion users.

Worse for publishers, the newest tweaks, or something rather like them, haven’t even necessarily reduced the problem that led to them.

McNamee, the Elevation Partners founder, called the changes “a positive step,” but also pointed out that, had they been in place in 2016, they might have exacerbated the Russian interference by increasing how much misinformation users were exposed to.

“Facebook is tailor-made for abuse by bad actors, and unless the company takes immediate action, we should expect a lot more of it, including interference in upcoming elections,” McNamee wrote.

And as the New York Times just reported, in six countries where a slightly different set of algorithmic changes were introduced in an experimental Explore program, they actually ended up “amplifying the impact of fabricated and sensational stories.”

In the program, rolled out in  Bolivia, Slovakia, Sri Lanka and elsewhere, publishers have seen Facebook-driven traffic drop as much as 60 percent, while still allowing, even encouraging, fake news, government-controlled diktat and similar problematic material, the Times reported.

The Explore program means viewers must do most of the sharing that drives views for publishers, because publishers must pay to play if they want their stories seen at all (and seen then mostly in a separate Discover section instead of the main News Feed).

While Facebook says it will continue to weed out false and misleading material, the built-in incentives of the Explore program, like those of Facebook’s newest algorithm changes, suggest weeding out bad traffic will only be that more common, and difficult to police. As one editor for a mainstream Slovakian news site put it, “People usually don’t share boring news with boring facts.”

So, publishers are faced with an ever more difficult choice: finally push away from the troublesome, even abusive relationship most of them have with Facebook, or find new ways to game the algorithms with ever more exploitative and eyeball-catching material and headlines. Thanks, Mark.