by Lucian Moses
The end is nigh. Facebook is planning a major change to its news feed, starting as early as next week, that will decisively favor user content and effectively deprioritize publishers’ content, according to three publishers that have been briefed by the platform ahead of the move.
Those who have been briefed say that under the new test, Facebook told them it will favor content that’s shared by users or otherwise actively engaged with. The thinking goes, according to those briefed, that Facebook believes prioritizing content that’s acted on will reduce the occurrence of fake and offensive content in the news feed.
Publishers still have many questions about the impending news feed change. Facebook told them that content from reputable publishers will also be surfaced. It didn’t specify how it would define “reputable publisher” or how their traffic would be impacted, though. The worry for publishers is that such an approach will have the unintended consequence of hurting high-quality content because a lot of legitimate news articles, while they may get read, tend not to get shared or commented on.
A Facebook rep wouldn’t confirm (or deny) these changes on the record but later addressed the plans in a blog post and to The New York Times. Facebook’s head of news partnerships Campbell Brown informed publishers of the changes in an email Friday morning, in which she acknowledged that the changes will “take some time to figure out.”
Facebook has been taking steps in this direction for some time, making tweaks to amplify users’ content while weeding out spam and clickbait. Publishers who have been briefed by Facebook believe this latest move would cause a more dramatic decline in publishers’ ability to reach audiences in the news feed, though. Although Facebook isn’t the referral source it once was for publishers, it remains a major source of referral traffic for them, only recently surpassed by Google.
“They’re breaking the bad news one by one,” said one person who was briefed by Facebook on the changes, adding that along with the user content change, Facebook also was prioritizing its scripted Watch shows, its major video initiative, as it tries to grab TV ad dollars. “My impression is they’re going to move away from what we think of as Facebook videos.”
As Facebook sends them less traffic, publishers have been diversifying away from Facebook and fishing for traffic on other platforms such as Google, Apple News and Twitter. Another downgrade in the news feed is likely to accelerate publishers’ shift in resources away from Facebook. Even some of Facebook’s strongest publisher boosters express mounting frustration. “We’re losing hope,” said one.
Last year, Facebook tested a newsless news feed called the Explore Feed in six countries outside the U.S., causing publishers to freak out and spurring speculation that Facebook would replicate that approach in the U.S., despite Facebook saying it didn’t expect to roll out the test further. Founder Mark Zuckerberg has publicly acknowledged problems wrought by technology, including misuse and abuse of the platform, which has amplified the spread of hate-filled content and misinformation and has been used to attempt to influence voters in the presidential election. Facebook has made a number of moves to stamp out fake news, but their results have been mixed.
Another big downgrade in the news feed won’t necessarily come as a shock to publishers, but it conflicts sharply with Facebook’s public stance about how it’s trying to help publishers. That was the stated aim of the year-old Facebook Journalism Project, which Facebook launched to much fanfare about helping support publishers’ business models.