Countries where Facebook is testing changes to news feed warn of risks
One morning in October, the editors of Pagina Siete, Bolivia’s thirdlargest news site, noticed that traffic to their outlet coming from Facebook was plummeting.
The publication had recently been hit by cyberattacks, and editors feared it was being targeted by hackers loyal to the government of President Evo Morales.
But it wasn’t the government’s fault. It was Facebook’s. The Silicon Valley company was testing a new version of its hugely popular news feed, peeling off professional news sites from what people normally see and relegating them to a new section of Facebook called Explore. Like it or not, Bolivia had become a guinea pig in the company’s continual quest to reinvent itself.
As Facebook updates and tweaks its service in order to keep users glued to their screens, countries like Bolivia are ideal testing grounds thanks to their growing, internet-savvy populations. But these changes can have significant consequences, such as limiting the audience for nongovernmental news sources and – surprisingly – amplifying the impact of fabricated and sensational stories.
On Thursday, Facebook announced plans to make similar changes to its news feed around the world. The company said it was trying to increase “meaningful interaction” on its site by drawing attention to content from family and friends while de-emphasizing content from brands and publishers, including the New York Times.
The changes are being made as the company finds itself embroiled in a larger debate over its role in spreading fake news and misinformation aimed at influencing elections in the United States and other nations.
Facebook said these news feed modifications were not identical to those introduced in fall in six countries through its Explore program, but both alterations favor posts from friends and family over professional news sites. And what happened in those countries illustrates the unintended consequences of such a change in an online service that now has a global reach of more than 2 billion people every month.
In Slovakia, where right-wing nationalists took nearly 10 percent of parliament in 2016, publishers said the changes had actually helped promote fake news. With official news organizations forced to spend money to place themselves in the news feed, it is now up to users to share information.
“People usually don’t share boring news with boring facts,” said Filip Struharik, the social media editor of Dennik N, a Slovakian subscription news site that saw a 30 percent drop in Facebook engagement after the changes. Struharik, who has been cataloging the effects of Facebook Explore through a monthly tally, has noted a steady rise in engagement on sites that publish fake or sensationalist news.
A bogus news story that spread in December illustrates the problem, Struharik said. The story claimed that a Muslim man had thanked a good Samaritan for returning his lost wallet, and had warned the Samaritan of a terrorist attack that was planned at a Christmas market.
The fabricated story circulated so widely that the local police issued a statement saying it wasn’t true. But when the police went to issue the warning on Facebook, they found that the message – unlike the fake news story they meant to combat – could no longer appear on news feed because it came from an official account.
Facebook explained its goals for the Explore program in Slovakia, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Bolivia, Guatemala and Serbia in a blog post in October.
“The goal of this test is to understand if people prefer to have separate places for personal and public content,” wrote Adam Mosseri, head of Facebook’s news feed. “There is no current plan to roll this out beyond these test countries.”
The company did not respond to a list of questions about the Explore program, but Mosseri said in a statement on Friday that the company took its role as a “global platform for information” seriously.
“We have a responsibility to the people who read, watch and share news on Facebook, and every test is done with that responsibility in mind,” he said.
The impact of the changes to the news feed were also felt in Cambodia. Months into the experiment – Facebook hasn’t said when it will end – Cambodians still don’t know where to find trusted, established news on Facebook, said Stuart White, editor of the Phnom Penh Post, an English-language newspaper.
Nongovernmental organizations working on issues such as education and health care also complained that the changes broke down lines of communication to Cambodians in need.
Facebook has become particularly important in Cambodia. The country’s leader, Hun Sen, has cracked down on political opponents, activists and media, effectively transforming the struggling democracy into a one-party state. Journalists have been arrested, newspapers have been shut down, and Facebook has emerged as an important, more independent channel for information.
That is, if you can find that information. White recalled a conversation this month with a friend who casually observed the lack of political conversation on Facebook.
“He said he thought the government had banned politics on Facebook,” White said. “He had no idea that Facebook had created Explore or was placing news there. He’s a young, urbanite, English-speaking Cambodian. If he didn’t know about it, what do you think the effects are on other parts of the country?”
Bolivia has also seen an increase in fake news as the established news sites are tucked behind the Explore function.