Step by step, Facebook has cut out news from its feeds. Since yesterday, it’s official. News will get deprioritized. Why? A take from a small organization that has been designing and consulting news sites for over 10 years.
As a small startup, iA was giving its best building up both a Facebook and a Twitter community. Then Facebook decided that we needed to pay to reach our built up followers. We dropped Facebook as a publishing platform like a hot potato and just auto-posted from Twitter.
Facebook’s big “bait-and-switch” didn’t get much attention. “Brands” and startups like ours lost their free advertisement. So what? News organizations weren’t hit right away. Free news was free fuel for Facebook. On the user side, hardly anyone realized what had just happened.
Through the magic of some tech Jedi mind trick, it wasn’t Facebook that cut us off from our followers. It was “the algorithm”. The algorithm was both the genius and the bogeyman. With the help of “the algorithm”, they got away breaking the biggest promise of Social Media. Social control. And they didn’t just “get away”. They robbed the bank and went to the moon.
Facebook has a history of getting away with things. Changing the rules in their favor because they can is baked into the company’s DNA and part of its success formula. Yesterday, they just did it again. And, most probably, they will get away with it again.
Your Privacy is Ours
Facebook is known for a rather relaxed way of handling privacy and user settings. What should have caused a major outrage didn’t seem to bother anyone, except for a couple of German privacy freaks. Somehow, Facebook seemed to be so important to us all that we didn’t care that they know more about us than our friends and family.
Companies did not only not care, they got more interested. Because of its invasive practices, Facebook looks like a great place to advertise. With all the spying and snooping around in our private lives, advertisers can target people on Facebook like nowhere else. Imagine you are an advertiser before you read the following lines:
Behind the Facebook profile you’ve built for yourself is another one, a shadow profile, built from the inboxes and smartphones of other Facebook users. Gizmodo
Cool, right? The more Facebook knows about you, and the more you mistrust it as a private citizen, the more attracted you get to it as an advertiser. As terrifying Facebook’s “shadow profiles” may be for you as a person, as attractive they are for you as an advertiser. Again read this through the eyes of an advertiser:
Facebook knows your phone ID and can add it to your Facebook ID. It puts that together with the rest of your online activity: not just every site you’ve ever visited, but every click you’ve ever made – the Facebook button tracks every Facebook user, whether they click on it or not. Since the Facebook button is pretty much ubiquitous on the net, this means that Facebook sees you, everywhere. LRB
iA advertised on Facebook. We may not sound like that but we are pragmatic. Software wants to be sold. Advertising on Facebook was a waste of time and money though. We also tried Google, Reddit, and Techmeme, and we had some success with it. But, at the time, Facebook was so bad, it seemed like another scam. We started wondering who is really paying for these infamous click-farms. At the time, it was mostly little post stamp sized banners.
Maybe we didn’t do it right. Maybe Facebook users don’t like writing as much as liking. These days, advertising on Facebook is much more flexible. Maybe we should try it again. The problem is that we don’t trust them. It’s almost impossible to verify anything they say, except for their revenue. They have the data. They report. We believe. If you believe everything Facebook tells you, then:
there are more 18-year-old men using Facebook today than there are 18-year-old men living on Earth. Let’s look at how that’s even possible. TNW
It’s difficult to tell what is happening inside that black box inside that walled garden. We have to trust them. We have to trust them with our secrets, with our news, and with our wallet. We have to trust them how much fake news and propaganda was delivered. How many ads were paid in Rubels. How many fake and real profiles they have. Notably, the number of propaganda ads and fake profiles started growing rapidly with the likeliness that the government demanded direct insight into their stats.
The profiles for iA (2K likes, 2K followers) and iA Writer (2.7K likes, 2.7K followers) still exist. We have them in case. In case someone searches for us there to see if we are real. In case there are some logins tied to Facebook that we couldn’t log in anymore otherwise. In case Facebook eats the Internet. Our profiles are not very lively. Most of the action comes from Facebook itself, congratulating us for the successful posts, suggesting a “boost”. Occasionally, someone asks us a question there. And, of course, we readily answer. Sometimes we make a handcrafted post. In reality, though, iA’s Facebook profiles are clones of our Twitter streams. Some say you get punished if you do that. Maybe it’s all our fault. Some people live on Facebook from Facebook. You may have heard already something along the lines of “it’s all about the groups these days.” “Normal Facebook sucks, but the Groups are great.” We are probably just doing it wrong.
News from Facebook
A couple of years back, after the iPad turned to not be the savior of news and Flipboard started becoming a ghost ship like Yahoo!, a lot of our clients in the news industry were focussing mostly on paywalls and Facebook. Some news organisations reportedly got huge amounts of traffic from the network of networks. “Guys, it’s all Facebook now. We need them. They need us.” No, they don’t.
Those who were not already dependent on Facebook hoped they would find a way to hook their user streams better into Zuckerberg’s motherlode. While news organizations were dancing to Facebook’s tune they neglected their biggest treasure: their own sites, and most importantly, what remained of their own social networks. Their readers. More and more advertising was crammed into busier and busier Desktop-Websites that fewer and fewer would visit. Their headlines and leads fed Facebook. Headlines and leads are what most people read, so Facebook was happy. Readers were happy too because they didn’t have to type URLs anymore to scan a couple of headlines.
Meanwhile, not just news organizations, humanity as a whole started to work for Facebook, for free:
In 2014, the New York Times did the arithmetic and found that humanity was spending 39,757 collective years on the site, every single day. Jonathan Taplin points out that this is ‘almost fifteen million years of free labour per year’. That was back when it had a mere 1.23 billion users. LRB
With all the 2016 hype about Artificial Intelligence, and how much it will either free or destroy us all in the near future, Facebook now relies on a huge human force of teachers, censors, and consumers. If Facebook is how we should imagine our the AI future, be prepared for a 21st century where humans work for machines instead of the inverse.
Last year, Facebook finally started getting some bad press—not for its relaxed handling of its users’ privacy, ripping off Snapchat, for wasting our time or for making us crazy—but mainly for the predominant role they play as one of the central distributors of information during the election. Zuckerberg was quick renouncing it as “a pretty crazy idea.”
“I think the idea that fake news on Facebook—of which it’s a very small amount of the content—influenced the election in any way is a pretty crazy idea,” Fortune
He went as far as claiming that posts on Facebook were “99% authentic”… which may leave those who have spent some time on social networks asking: Does he ever use his own product? Is Zuckerberg real?
It took some time until he acknowledged that they might have played a role and that they would try to take care of their issues. This is where their otherwise excellent PR department started getting defensive and making mistakes. Taking a step back from news is good for PR and good for China:
facebook’s decision to downgrade publishers in their newsfeed seems like a knee jerk reaction to the negative reputation the company has since Trump’s election and the scrutiny it has come under for its role in Brexit or the Catalonia crisis. And then there are reports about declining user engagement and there is the overall shift towards ‚private social‘ i.e. chat apps. But there is more to it. […] Wrapping too much journalism around your brand is a mistake for any platform hoping to still make it into China, which is one of Mark Zuckerberg’s great ambitions. Wolfgang Blau
With power comes responsibility (theoretically)
When you become as big as Facebook, where you have the power to filter and sort what Billions of people see or not see, want to see and believe, you start shaping what different parts of a society regard as real. If the news is chosen by popularity, journalists become marketers that feed different bubbles with what they want to see and read. Reality becomes a mere matter of belief.
The power to shape reality comes with a responsibility. A responsibility that Facebook rejected completely even though they worked inside the political campaigns:
Actually hearing this from the horse's mouth is disturbing.
Trump's Facebook writer talks targeting. @bbcstories pic.twitter.com/gSZGC7l4Xa
— Timothy Castantine (@Castantine) August 15, 2017
Suddenly, one of the most influential companies in the world—promising to connect people and change the world, while they “helped anti-refugee campaigns in swing states”—is now just a technology provider. As Sherryl Sandberg put it famously:
“At our heart we’re a tech company; we hire engineers. We don’t hire reporters, no one’s a journalist, we don’t cover the news,” WIRED
And echoes of that convenient “algorithm” sound.
A company that regards breastfeeding as obscene and employs an army of people sifting through info-filth pretends to be neutral. In reality, they reject all responsibility under the pretext that they didn’t want to censor. They rejected it because “just being an engineer” is more profitable than taking responsibility. Responsibility can be pricey.
In April it announced plans to use artificial intelligence to prevent videos that violate the company’s policies from being seen. A few weeks later, it announced plans to hire another 3,000 people worldwide on its community operations team to review sensitive material such as violence, hate speech or child exploitation. Adweek
In the meantime, organizations whose core identity is to take that very responsibility, followed Zuckerberg’s carrot, added like buttons, built instant articles, and then fell for the ridiculous 555th iteration of the old tune called “The future of the Internet is video”; this time it was live-video. The more docile the news organisations got, the more blindly they followed the dictate from FBHQ, the worse they got treated.
Instead of turning their backs on Facebook all together they then started doing really embarrassing self-humiliating things. Like buying ad space on Facebook under their own name and reselling it to their clients that booked native ads on the news site. Really, nonsense like that happened and still happens. Apparently, economically, it somehow makes sense. Every time we heard such crazy stories in a meeting presented as a “clever way” or “the only way”, or “I know but…” it seemed like the Eagles were playing “Desperado” in the background.
GOOG and FB now have direct influence over 70%+ of internet traffic. Stalz
Internationally, most publishers completely depend on Google and Facebook.
New! Less News on Facebook
The bigger you get the quicker things get out of hands. After the election, the Democrats were looking for someone to blame for their surreal defeat of a qualified politician against a lunatic showman. The danger doesn’t just come from the left. Steve Bannon believes that “the government should regulate Google and Facebook like public utilities. ‘They’re too powerful. I want to make sure their data is a public trust. The stocks would drop two-thirds in value.’”
In response, Facebook promised that they will clean up their fake news streams to avoid regulation. Fact checking failed soon. Fact-checking is not as good a business as fake news. It’s always faster and easier to lie than proving a lie to be wrong. Maybe getting out of news would be smarter to begin with. The users won’t miss them much:
…most are already seeing only a very limited amount of journalism in the News Feed. About 75 percent of users reporting seeing either just 1 news story in their top 10 News Feed posts or none at all. NiemanLab
Luckily, Facebook had already announced that they would focus more on “community”, focussing on groups rather than streams. A few weeks ago, Zuckerberg promised to fix Facebook altogether. And now:
Faced with perhaps its first ever existential crisis—the weight of being considered a “media company,” and all the responsibilities that come with it, including being blamed for the rampant spread of “fake news,” a Russian psyops campaign, and the tampering of a US election—Facebook has decided it’s not cut out for the news business. Source
Concretely, Facebook will separate space for news after they said that this was just a local experiment. Will news organizations have less visibility? Facebook’s PR these days sometimes borders on self-satire:
“Does this mean you are eliminating Page content from News Feed? No. This update is not the same as the recent tests where all Page content was moved to the Explore Tab. Page posts will still appear in News Feed, though there may be fewer of them.”
In case you’re not trained in cutting PR wood: They will not completely “eliminate” news (no one thought that anyway) but show “less”. Will hurt the business of news organizations? You bet, but who cares? Will it hurt Facebook’s business? Probably, at least a bit. So why do they go this way?
Next Wednesday, Facebook is set to appear at another hearing on Capitol Hill, along with Twitter and YouTube, about the online spread of extremist propaganda. New York Times
In other words: The fear of regulation. Are antitrust laws the only thing that stands between Facebook and their Napoleonic vision of World Wide Web domination?
What moves Facebook?
Going back to little iA and to that moment of truth where Facebook decided to cut us off from our followers… Why did no one protest? We did, but no one cared. Why did no one care? No one knew. “Brands” noticed that they were not visible. Small organizations like ours as well. But our friends and followers didn’t notice they got cut off. They thought we had left. iA just didn’t appear anymore. The few techies who noticed probably thought “it’s the algorithm”. Then, bit by bit, news organizations got cut off, and they experienced the same phenomenon:
once, my mom asked why Motherboard stopped using Facebook. We hadn’t, but for months Facebook didn’t show a Motherboard article on her news feed even though she “likes” the page. Motherboard
Now, it seems, news organizations are going to be cut off hard from their readers, and readers are going to be cut off hard from news on Facebook. This comes at a time, where a lot of people blame the messenger for the message. Where a lot of people believe that not reading the news and doing their best in their community is a better way than caring about things we can not influence. You believe that, too, right? Don’t worry, it’s fine.
What matters is: Facebook’s move will probably work again. Mark Zuckerberg outsmarted everyone for years. He may sound a bit confused and dorky and uncomfortable at times:
Zuck showing off seriously weird VR hurricane disaster tourism on FB right now btw https://t.co/kjbmJqAAMf pic.twitter.com/KxlmQzBK3H
— Carl Franzen (@carlfranzen) 9. Oktober 2017
…but, don’t fool yourself, he has a hell of a brain and he is a hell of a fighter and he always wins. And he has control over his company, financial and human resources like no one else. The best designers, smartest business strategists, brightest economists and an army of super coders work at Facebook. To top it all: Zuckerberg has more than enough data to know ahead of time what move will work and what won’t work. Facebook can only beat itself. We have no chance. Unless the government steps in.
What about the people working there? What about the responsibilities of coders, managers, designers at Facebook? Hey, hello, if you read this! Please stay with us. The good bits are yet to come.
People that work at Facebook love their organization. They work hard, and they work together with some of the most talented people in the world. They have the coolest offices. And they earn well. Deservedly. They are the best of the best. They are the nicest people. Mostly. They think the accusations are not fair, but they acknowledge mistakes. Zuckerberg himself is nice, wants nice things and he has acknowledged himself they need to improve. PR is working overtime to fix the Facebook image…
Is anyone else seeing these Facebook ads around the Interwebs? pic.twitter.com/Aj3NyBKPh6
— Jennifer 8. Lee (@jenny8lee) 6. Oktober 2017
This year, Zuckerberg even put aside his official personal growth program and declared that:
My personal challenge for 2018 is to focus on fixing these important issues. We won’t prevent all mistakes or abuse, but we currently make too many errors enforcing our policies and preventing misuse of our tools. If we’re successful this year then we’ll end 2018 on a much better trajectory. Mark Zuckerberg
He also understands that the current Internet Monopoly shared between four or five companies may not only be against the very idea of the Internet but may pose political, social, and economic risks:
One of the most interesting questions in technology right now is about centralization vs decentralization. A lot of us got into technology because we believe it can be a decentralizing force that puts more power in people’s hands. (The first four words of Facebook’s mission have always been “give people the power”.) Back in the 1990s and 2000s, most people believed technology would be a decentralizing force.
But today, many people have lost faith in that promise. With the rise of a small number of big tech companies — and governments using technology to watch their citizens — many people now believe technology only centralizes power rather than decentralizes it. Mark Zuckerberg
That Facebook is one of those four monopolies may be implied in his statement, but it is not explicit that Facebook itself is the centralized corporate intransparent force he describes as the problem he wants to solve. Let’s be clear here: Facebook is the centralized black box in the middle of the walled garden. Facebook is the dominant mobile platform and King on information monopoly hill. Sounds a bit exaggerated, isn’t it? Look at the world’s top social networks:
- Facebook (1.9 billion users)
- Facebook’s WhatsApp (1.2 billion users)
- YouTube (1 billion users since 2013)
- Facebook’s Messenger (1 billion users since 2016)
- WeChat/Weixin (889 million users)
- QQ (869 million users)
- Qzone (638 million users)
- Facebook’s Instagram (600 million users)
- Twitter (319 million users)
- Weibo (313 million users)
Improving Facebook or solving the problem Zuckerberg describes would mean ripping Facebook apart, tearing Facebook and all of its properties down and rebuilding everything completely.
It may as well be that what is behind most of Zuckerberg’s promises is the desire to be a good man. It may be that the fear of regulation is the driving force to make big promises. It may be a mix. Improve, feel good about yourself, stay self-regulated and avoid the antitrust hammer. Having Facebook regulate itself may not be the best idea but for Zuckerberg, avoiding regulation may be the real goal not only of 2018 but for the time being.
Everything that Facebook does in the near future has to be interpreted in the stark neon light of fighting antitrust laws. Zuckerberg is ready for big sacrifices to avoid the governmental beatdown. Cutting news organizations out of the main feed already cost him 3.3 Billion. He knew that beforehand. He also knew that news organizations would not love him for his big change of mind. But compared to having the government step in and break up the Facebook Kingdom, 3.3 Billion and a couple of angry journalists is a very small price.