I write this as a veteran of dozens and dozens of Facebook news feed algorithm changes over the past few years: local news publishers beware, Mark Zuckerberg and the news feed team are about to wreck your business.
Today, Facebook announced that users will start to see more stories from local news outlets in their News Feed. According to the company the change will prioritize local news, so that users can “see topics that have a direct impact on their community” and learn more about local events.
“Now, people around the world will see more news on Facebook from local sources covering their current city and other cities they may care about,” said Alex Hardiman, Facebook’s Head of News Product, and Campbell Brown, Head of News Partnerships.
Of course this appears to be a huge positive for local news outlets, but if publishers have learned anything from distributing their content on the social media giant, you can’t believe a word they say or build a business around whatever PR stunt they might happen to be engaging in. Facebook is interested in helping Facebook, and no one else.
From the Russian fake news and ad attacks to the Cambridge Analytica scandal, it should now be abundantly clear that Facebook exists to extract data from its users and sell it to the highest bidder — whomever that might be. While nothing in life is free, Facebook has taken astonishing liberties with its users and gleaned truly scary amounts of data from their engagement on the platform. Now it wants users to believe it didn’t really know what it was doing, that Zuckerberg is very sorry, and that it is turning over a new leaf and will work for the good of the community/humanity etc, etc. Part of this damage repair starts with local news — a quick and easy algorithm change that will prioritize publishers creating content around their community (whatever that might mean).
“We’ll consider a publisher as local to multiple cities if the people in those cities are more likely than the people outside of those cities to read articles from the publisher’s domain,” said Hardiman and Brown. “By expanding the scope of what may be considered local to people, we’re including other cities that people may care about and connecting people to local publishers from those cities.”
This inevitably means local publishers will start to get a lot more exposure, more traffic, and more money. They’ll find new advertising opportunities and begin expanding operations, as did all the companies that benefitted from Facebook’s original news feed settings (Buzzfeed, Upworthy, and every other clickbait site you can think of). Then, when Facebook’s profit motive changes, they will ditch small publishers in a blink of an eye and incinerate their business models. It will be brutal, and there will be no way for small publishers to fight back.
How do I know this? Because Facebook is doing this to us. Almost overnight, Facebook shut off access to roughly 60/70% of our fans on our page. Facebook once encouraged us to publish on their mobile platform that they would help monetize. After 18 months of steady income, they turned the tap off. Why? Because Russia spread fake news, and everyone including responsible publishers, had to pay the price. I actually had a back and forth with Adam Mossieri, the head of News Feed at Facebook over Twitter about this where he claimed this couldn’t possibly be the case.
The meaningful social interactions work is just starting to roll out, and we estimate it’ll reduce the percentage of News Feed that’s news from 5% to 4% over a number of months. So if you’re seeing a 60% drop it unlikely that can be fully explaining by recent ranking changes.
— Adam Mosseri (@mosseri) January 24, 2018
But other quality small publishers will confirm this is indeed happening with dire consequences for their business models. And of course, there is no way to tell whether Facebook is being truthful about the algorithm changes it makes because there is no oversight and no regulation. You could take the company at their word, but then they’ve proven over and over and over again that it isn’t worth anything.
As we struggle to find new ways to reach the thousands and thousands of Banter fans who used to come to us via Facebook, it is becoming increasingly clear that the company cannot be trusted. If an alternative social media platform emerges with similar functionality but greater transparency and control over data, we will gladly make the switch. For now, we will use Facebook just as it uses us — a sad breakdown in what was a fruitful, enjoyable relationship. Facebook once represented the future, a new, powerful tool to bring people together, create communities and allow small publishers to create meaningful content that could be read by thousands of people. But it is now a faceless monolith — a boring tech mega corporation that treats users like bits data to be auctioned and sold. We will use it to reach what is left of our audience on the platform, but the joy is gone and they have lost us as an advocate.
The recent overtures to local publishers should be treated with great, great skepticism, and I would advise publishers to work diligently to build alternative strategies to reach their audiences. Because in the long term, Facebook will ruin your business. Of that you can be absolutely sure.
Ben Cohen is the editor and founder of The Daily Banter. He lives in Washington DC where he does podcasts, teaches Martial Arts, and tries to be a good father. He would be extremely disturbed if you took him too seriously.