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With its Facebook Watch news show, Alabama’s Reckon wants to make a national audience care about local news
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Jan. 8, 2018, 8:11 a.m.
Audience & Social
LINK: www.facebook.com  ➚   |   Posted by: Christine Schmidt   |   January 8, 2018

The question had been raised before: What if Facebook, struggling with the global “fake news” problem, just threw up its Like hands and de-prioritized news altogether? In the dawn of 2018, it doesn’t seem as far fetched anymore.

Mark Zuckerberg’s goal for the new year (joining previous annual goals of visiting all 50 U.S. states, running 365 miles in a year, and building an AI system for his home) is now focusing on fixing Facebook’s issues of abuse, hate, foreign interference, and mindless scrolling (maybe). But how does “fixing” affect the distribution of legitimate news?

The world feels anxious and divided, and Facebook has a lot of work to do — whether it’s protecting our community from abuse and hate, defending against interference by nation states, or making sure that time spent on Facebook is time well spent.

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….

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.

There are important counter-trends to this — like encryption and cryptocurrency — that take power from centralized systems and put it back into people’s hands. But they come with the risk of being harder to control. I’m interested to go deeper and study the positive and negative aspects of these technologies, and how best to use them in our services.

The Facebook founder doesn’t have a great track record of acknowledging when the platform needed to own up to its shortcomings, such as calling the idea that “fake news on Facebook” influenced the 2016 U.S. election “a pretty crazy idea” before an in-person appeal from President Obama. In September, The New York Times’ Farhad Manjoo pointed out that “throughout Facebook’s history, on questions of privacy and advertising and business strategy, he has repeatedly fallen behind, then issued blog posts begging for another chance to put things right…A friend and mentor who knows Mr. Zuckerberg well told me recently that his greatest skill is his ability to learn from his mistakes. He was late to appreciate how the world’s most-used social service might be used for ill. Now that he finally seems to understand the problem, there may be hope that he can do something about it.”

Facebook has already proven, though, that it doesn’t consider news to be sacred. Though it launched the Facebook Journalism Project almost exactly a year ago, the initiative is still finding its place amid ideas like the Trust Project indicators for publishers and testing subscriptions from Instant Articles. The company’s experiment earlier this fall of moving news from users’ main News Feed to a separate Explore feed caused the traffic of news organizations in the test countries of Bolivia, Cambodia, Guatemala, Serbia, Slovakia, and Sri Lanka to plummet. “Facebook is trying to get the news out of people’s way,” Guatemalan journalist Dina Fernandez told Wang. A Facebook representative reportedly said that the platform will “completely deprioritize publishers,” according to an anonymous publishing source in Digiday’s Confessions.

[Anonymous audience development head at a midsize digital publisher:] When you’re a publisher, you don’t think of yourself as part of a test, but really, we’re all at the behest of Facebook and their constant experimentation. That’s all going to go away in 2018.

[Digiday’s Max Willens:] Why do you say that?

[Audience development head:] They are going to completely deprioritize publishers. They very candidly said to me, “If I were you, I would probably not rely on Facebook as much as you are.” So a big strategy for publishers needs to be diversification. The people at Facebook I’ve spoken to have confirmed this. Their efforts are going to be elsewhere.

Zuckerberg has said before that he wants the company to pay more attention to fostering communities, which is a trend already on track in the industry. They’ve also taken measures to slow clickbait in the News Feed.

Though many news organizations heavily rely on Facebook for referral traffic, there’s evidence that there hasn’t been significant amounts of news in News Feeds themselves already. Our Shan Wang investigated the prominence of publishers’ posts on users’ feeds. She found that half of the 402 people she surveyed saw no news in their first 10 posts and only one person in the sample had news stories be a majority of their feed’s content.

So if this is the new reality, what can be done about it — without pivoting to video? (Let’s leave that one in 2017.)

GroundSource’s Simon Galperin wrote a well-timed guide earlier this week about preparing for the removal of publisher posts from Facebook’s News Feed earlier this week, emphasizing the need to develop audiences on alternative channels, encourage users to share on social media themselves, cultivating Facebook groups, collaborating with and learning from other publishers stuck in the same pickle, and adapting your business model. In February, Emily Bell pushed for Facebook and Silicon Valley to “fix journalism” with a “significant transfer of wealth”: “America needs a radical new market intervention similar to that made by the UK Government in 1922 when it issued a Royal Charter and established the BBC. Remaking independent journalism requires funding that is independent of individuals or corporations, has a longtime horizon built into it, and offers complete independence and as much stability as possible. If, instead of scrapping over news initiatives, the four or five leading technology companies could donate $1 billion in endowment each for a new type of engine for independent journalism, it would be more significant a contribution than a thousand scattered initiatives put together.”

A few of our 2018 predictors delved further into this quandary, and others shared ideas for how to break out of the platform chokehold. (Some also still think that there is merit to the argument of Facebook, Google, and others paying publishers for content.)

Or, you can read these tweets about Zuckerberg’s 2018 pledge. We don’t judge.

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