Note: This was originally published as the daily newsletter for the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer
In February, Facebook announced an experiment designed to test how much political news users wanted in their News Feeds, a test that would remove that kind of content for a small group of users in the US, Canada, Brazil, and Indonesia, and then survey those users for their reactions to the removal. According to an update published on Tuesday, the company saw what it called “positive results” from the experiment, and as a result is now expanding the test to cover users in Ireland, Sweden, Spain, and Costa Rica. In addition, Facebook said it is tweaking the way it measures user behavior when interacting with political content: “We’ve learned that some engagement signals can better indicate what posts people find more valuable than others,” the company said. Instead of looking only at whether someone is likely to comment on or share a political post, Facebook said it will now put more emphasis on newer signals, such as how likely a person is to provide negative feedback about a political post or topic that happens to show up in their News Feed.
Facebook’s announcement is just the latest in a long series of algorithm changes aimed at de-emphasizing not just political news but professional news sources in general. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, said in 2018 the social network would be changing the News Feed to prioritize content shared by a user’s friends and family, rather than content from professional publishers and brands. “I’m changing the goal I give our product teams from focusing on helping you find relevant content to helping you have more meaningful social interactions,” he said. Some hoped the changes might spur some media companies to stop relying on Facebook for their traffic, but it’s unclear whether that has happened to any significant extent. Meanwhile, some disinformation researchers have pointed out that Facebook’s prioritization of content from friends and family—including a focus on promoting the use of private groups—may actually have made the problem worse.
Whenever Facebook tweaks its news algorithm, media outlets and publishers around the world tend to hold their breath, because even a small change in such a large and influential platform can impact a publisher’s traffic significantly. When the company made a similar tweak to its algorithms designed to down-rank professional news content in favor of personal posts, some publishers saw traffic declines as high as 30 percent. According to Facebook’s note, the latest changes “will affect public affairs content more broadly [and] publishers may see an impact on their traffic.” The company didn’t say how big an impact they might see, but did add it is planning a “gradual and methodical rollout” for its experiment, and expects to announce further expansions in the coming months.
As Wired magazine noted in a piece about Facebook’s latest changes, one of the most interesting things about the announcement is the company admits simply looking at “engagement” with specific kinds of posts—meaning anything from leaving a comment to clicking the Like button—is not a great way to measure whether someone finds a specific post to be valuable. In the past, engagement was the holy grail of interactivity for Facebook, and it encouraged others to look at it in the same way: its CrowdTangle tool, which it has encouraged media companies to use as a way of gauging the performance of their content on Facebook, only measures engagement. But the company has been moving away from that metric: its recent content report focuses on “reach” (who saw a post) rather than engagement, although some experts have cautioned this re-orientation could be an attempt to downplay the impact of disinformation on the platform.
As with most of Facebook’s other algorithm tweaks, the impact of this latest one is going to be difficult (if not impossible) to predict, in part because the term “political news” is so vague. Does it mean only posts that refer to political parties or elected officials by name? What about posts involving a controversial topic such as climate change or abortion? Facebook isn’t saying, although the company did say its test does not restrict or down-rank information related to COVID-19 from “authoritative health organizations” such as the CDC and WHO, as well as national and regional health agencies. Content from official government agencies and services is also exempt from the new rules, Facebook said. Some media industry observers say they aren’t optimistic about the impact of the changes because the company “isn’t good at defining what is political,” and others say they are concerned Facebook’s new approach might wind up hurting progressive news sources more.
Here’s more on Facebook and news:
Nothing to see here: In addition to arguing that it doesn’t amplify disinformation, Facebook has been trying for some time to make the case that even if there is some negative political content on its service, the amount is so tiny that it couldn’t possibly affect anyone. In a news update in November of 2020, the company said that for the average user of its News Feed in the US, political news—not just the controversial kind, but any kind—made up just six percent of the content they saw on the social network.
News as junk food: Gilad Edelman, writing in Wired, says that moving away from engagement as a metric makes sense, since many people interact with political news even when they know that doing so isn’t good for them. “What the AI doesn’t understand is that I feel worse after reading those posts and would much prefer to not see them in the first place,” he writes. “It’s a bit like food, actually: Place a bowl of Doritos in front of me, and I will eat them, then regret doing so. Ask me what I want to eat first, and I’ll probably request something I can feel better about.”
Facebook Armageddon: In 2018, I wrote a feature for CJR that looked at how closely intertwined many media companies and publishers were with Facebook, and how the company’s repeated algorithm changes and its dominant position in the online advertising industry could spell doom for some outlets. “Facebook is a threat not necessarily because it’s evil but because it does what it does very well, which is to target people for advertisers,” said Martin Nisenholtz, former head of digital strategy at The New York Times. The question, he said, is “has it become so dominant now that it’s become essentially a monopoly, and if so what should publishers do about it?”
Other notable stories:
The House committee investigating the attack on the US Capitol on January 6 sent letters to thirty-five tech and telecom companies this week, asking them to preserve records on specific individuals who may be relevant to their investigation, and Protocol has obtained and published copies of each of those letters. The request has drawn criticism from Republican lawmakers, including House minority leader Kevin McCarthy, who accused the committee of asking companies to violate federal law, and vowed that a “Republican majority would not forget” companies that comply with the request. McCarthy did not specify what law the companies would be violating. Protocol has more.
Maribel Perez Wadsworth, president of news at Gannett Media and publisher of USA Today, wrote in an update on the company’s diversity goals that it has made “solid progress” towards its commitment to build a workforce that “mirrors the demographics of the nation and the communities we serve by the end of 2025.” Wadsworth said Gannett has increased the number of journalists it employs who are female, Black, Indigenous and People of Color. “Though our work is far from over, we continue our commitment to achieving racial and ethnic parity over the course of the next four years,” she said.
The Associated Press announced Wednesday that AP assistant managing editor and Washington bureau chief Julie Pace has been named the global news agency’s senior vice president and executive editor, effective immediately. Pace joined AP in 2007 as a video producer, and spent the last four years directing multi-format coverage of US politics and elections, national security and domestic policy, the wire service said, including leading a team that collaborated with AP journalists around the world.
Salman Rushdie is publishing his next novel in serial format on Substack, according to an interview he gave the Guardian. The novella, titled The Seventh Wave, is about a film director and an actor/muse written in the style of New Wave cinema, Rushdie said, with “disjunctions and crash cuts and gangsters.” The author said publishing of the novella will be a digital experiment in serialising fiction, with new sections coming out approximately once a week over the course of about a year. According to the Guardian report, Substack has been reaching out to authors like Rushdie in an attempt to get them to use the platform.
Joe Biden pledged to support press freedom but so far he hasn’t followed through on his promises, Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, writes in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. “Hundreds of Afghan journalists who worked for international news organizations, including The Wall Street Journal, New York Times and Washington Post, have gotten out of Afghanistan thanks to the ingenuity of their employers,” Simon writes. “But those working for the local media, including news organizations supported by U.S. government grants, have been largely left behind.”
Conflicts over race and culture have caused turmoil in the Romance Writers of America, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and other similar groups, according to a report by the New York Times. Among the recent conflicts was one at the Romance Writers of America, which rescinded an award given to the 2020 novel At Love’s Command over complaints that it “romanticized genocide” against Native Americans. In the opening scene of the novel, the book’s hero participates in the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre, in which the United States Army killed hundreds of unarmed members of the Lakota Sioux tribe in South Dakota, including women and children.
A group of senior Afghan journalists who spent time working for the BBC have accused the corporation and the UK government of ignoring their pleas for help after being stranded in Kabul. The fourteen-member group, who all served as presenters, reporters, or producers, for the British public news network, are hiding from the Taliban after their calls for assistance were rejected by both the corporation and the UK embassy. “Unfortunately we have been abandoned by the BBC. I am under threat, me and my family. The BBC have a moral responsibility to us,” said one presenter, according to the Guardian. The network said it was trying to help staff and their families, but was unable to extend that support to former BBC workers as both UK and US agencies had limited capacity to help.
Fox News has repeatedly made use of Jack Keane, a retired four-star general and former vice-chief of staff for the US Army, as a commentator and panelist for his expertise in Afghanistan since the fall of Kabul, including criticizing Joe Biden for the US withdrawal from the country. But the Daily Beast notes that despite Keane’s dozens of on-air appearances, the network has not disclosed Keane’s role as an executive for a defense contractor that has profited from the Afghanistan war. Since October 2016, Keane has been the executive chairman of AM General, the military vehicle manufacturer that makes Humvees.