Coun­tries where Face­book is test­ing changes to news feed warn of risks

The Buffalo News - - WORLD NEWS - By Sheera Frenkel, Ni­cholas Casey and Paul Mozur

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.

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