News & Politics

Facebook's Newsfeed 'Fix' Is a Disaster in the Making

Legitimate outlets of the independent variety are about to take a major hit.

Photo Credit: Frederic Legrand - COMEO / Shutterstock.com

In a post shortly after New Year’s Day, Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg vowed that 2018 would be be the year when he will “fix“ his social network. Last week, he announced that as part of that focus, Facebook will be attempting to clean up its News Feed Feature, the portion of Facebook that features a mix of updates from users' friends along with content posted by businesses, nonprofits and political organizations.

The most significant change, Zuckerberg wrote on Jan. 11, will be that “public content” from brands and media outlets will no longer be given as much prominence in users' feeds. Instead, posts from friends and family will be boosted.

“We feel a responsibility to make sure our services aren’t just fun to use, but also good for people’s well-being,” Zuckerberg wrote. He then referenced several academic studies that have shown that Facebook addicts who scroll through the site’s news feed for even relatively short periods of time end up feeling depressed as a result, whether from feeling that they’ve wasted time, a sense of information overload or an unhealthy desire to compare their own lives to the unrealistically positive narratives their friends are posting.

Citing other research claiming that online conversations with Facebook friends was psychologically more helpful to people, Zuckerberg wrote that the social network would give higher priority to posts “that spark conversations and meaningful interactions.”

In a Jan. 13 interview with Wired, Adam Mosseri, the Facebook vice president who runs the News Feed feature, stated that the company would be giving lower priority to published videos because watching them is a “passive” activity. He also said that content with long-winded comments posted would also receive higher visibility than posts with lots of “likes.”

In a post shortly after New Year’s Day, Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg vowed that 2018 would be be the year when he will “fix“ his social network. Last week, he announced that as part of that focus, Facebook will be attempting to clean up its News Feed Feature, the portion of Facebook that features a mix of updates from users' friends along with content posted by businesses, nonprofits and political organizations.

The most significant change, Zuckerberg wrote on Jan. 11, will be that “public content” from brands and media outlets will no longer be given as much prominence in users' feeds. Instead, posts from friends and family will be boosted.

“We feel a responsibility to make sure our services aren’t just fun to use, but also good for people’s well-being,” Zuckerberg wrote. He then referenced several academic studies that have shown that Facebook addicts who scroll through the site’s news feed for even relatively short periods of time end up feeling depressed as a result, whether from feeling that they’ve wasted time, a sense of information overload or an unhealthy desire to compare their own lives to the unrealistically positive narratives their friends are posting.

Citing other research claiming that online conversations with Facebook friends was psychologically more helpful to people, Zuckerberg wrote that the social network would give higher priority to posts “that spark conversations and meaningful interactions.”

In a Jan. 13 interview with Wired, Adam Mosseri, the Facebook vice president who runs the News Feed feature, stated that the company would be giving lower priority to published videos because watching them is a “passive” activity. He also said that content with long-winded comments posted would also receive higher visibility than posts with lots of “likes.”

In his post, Zuckerberg indicated that the "news quality" survey was his attempt to remove the company from making value judgments about media outlets and to avoid consultation with "outside experts," whose objectivity would invariably be questioned.

Almost certainly, the idea is going to provoke strife in the political realm, largely because conservatives, especially those on the far right, get their news from sources most other people have never heard of.

In a 2014 Pew Research Center poll, only 45 percent of respondents said they knew who Sean Hannity was, even though he has been the host of a prime-time evening news program on Fox News Channel for about 20 years. The study found that only 35 percent of respondents knew of the Drudge Report, the conservative news aggregator that has been popular among news junkies for two decades. An even smaller number, 15 percent, had ever heard of Breitbart News.

The only right-leaning outlet that has almost universal name recognition is Fox News Channel which, thanks to its polarizing effect, is simultaneously the most trusted and distrusted major news operation.

Added together, the conservative media's isolation and Facebook's desire to ignore professional reputations in favor of asking its users to determine news outlets' merits is likely to create a problem. It will either resort in a profusion of exaggerated or fabricated stories flooding into users' news feeds or it will is result in complaints about Facebook's perceived unfairness to conservatives.

While Facebook has offered a few clues as to how its news-feed changes will impact users and publishers, the company admits that it still has not quite figured out its strategy.

“This change will take some time to figure out,” Campbell Brown, the former NBC reporter who is now Facebook’s head of news partnerships, told publishers in a Jan. 12 message. Off the record, the company has been telling legitimate news sites that their content will still have a chance in users’ news feeds, but has not provided much in the way of specifics.

The new policies have underscored just how powerful the company has become in the global media landscape. As things stand, Facebook is the news source for about 47 percent of Americans, half of whom say they don’t turn to any other social media outlet.

“I think that news is going to remain highly popular on Facebook because people will always want to know about the world and their communities,” David Chavern, CEO of the News Media Alliance told Poynter. “This change does highlight, however, the power of Facebook to decide (and alter) the kinds of information that people are exposed to. It is an incredible power that carries incredible responsibilities.”

 

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Matthew Sheffield covers politics, media and technology for Salon. Email him via [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.