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Oct. 26, 2017, 10:43 a.m.
Audience & Social

When a Facebook test moves news stories to a separate feed, traffic — and public discourse — are at stake

“It’s important politically how this is going to play out.”

It’s Facebook’s world; we just live in it.

Facebook recently launched a test — and tests, for the platform over the years, are a dime a dozen — of a new and separate feed outside the main News Feed all its users see when they log on. Called Explore and marked with a rocketship icon, the section was the new home for a mix of posts from Facebook pages — meaning public figures, brands, and of course, news organizations found what they published to Facebook exiled there. This particular test, according to Facebook, is taking place only in Bolivia, Cambodia, Guatemala, Serbia, Slovakia, and Sri Lanka. Want to get back into the regular feed? Facebook would be happy to let you — if you buy an ad.

(Earlier iterations of Explore have been tested since this spring and originally focused on content from pages users hadn’t explicitly liked — but which Facebook believed they would find interesting.)

The drop in reach for most news organizations on Facebook in those six countries has been precipitous. Since Slovakian journalist Filip Struharik of Slovakian news outlet Denník N noted the change in a Medium post, the “biggest drop in Facebook organic reach we have ever seen,” affected news outlets have been vocal about their sudden diminishment on Facebook’s turf. And the numbers have been something to fear.

Traffic to Soy 502, one of the top Guatemalan news sites, had fallen 66 percent since the test, according to Soy 502 journalist Dina Fernandez. The site normally gets around 60 to 70 percent of its traffic from Facebook. Facebook had been in touch with her site in advance before the experiment started, she said, as Soy 502 has been a news partner of the platform in Central America, so it was aware a drop would soon occur. But it still wasn’t prepared for the scale of it.

“In the old feed, there were problems, but the news was there. Right now, it’s becoming more complicated. Facebook is trying to get the news out of people’s way. For me, it seems obvious it’s a way for them to grow new revenue streams,” Fernandez said. “It’s important politically how this is going to play out. People need to be informed.”

Traffic to Nómada, a small but well-known digital magazine in Guatemala, has dropped 57 percent, its editor-in-chief Martín Rodríguez Pellecer told me (comparing a six-day average from September versus after Facebook made the Explore Feed change). The site usually sees just under 50 percent of its traffic coming from Facebook.

“We don’t know yet what percentage of our followers even receive us in the Explore section. It could be 1 percent, or 0.1 percent, or even smaller. If Facebook will force a competition between smaller news media and pages with money to get into people’s feeds, the public debate will be corrupted,” Rodríguez Pellecer said. “Now it’s only a budget competition. And this can be very, very dangerous for democracy.”

Organic post reach for the Cambodian site Khmerload, which publishes viral stories, has been cut in half, according to Khmerload CEO In Vichet, who said he only found out that the Facebook change had affected Cambodian sites through other press coverage two days after the test began. He also mentioned that notifications alerting users of a live video starting appear to have stopped. (Khmerload also ran a small survey of its users and found that most seemed unaware that they could no longer find Khmerload in their main feed.)

Other percentages reported in a variety of other stories about the Explore Feed tests have been comparably alarming.

“When Facebook enabled their Explore Feed test I was abroad, and I couldn’t fully grasp instantly what they had done. But soon I understood what it meant in the short term and I was distraught,” Enrique Naveda, director of the Guatemalan investigative news outlet Plaza Pública, told me via email. He found out through the response Facebook’s Adam Mosseri published earlier this week. “It quickly proved to be a very troubling decision: Our fanpage disappeared from the feed, our investigative in-depth stories lost a lot of visibility or were hid, the number of our shares plummeted.”

Plaza Pública focuses on investigations and relies less on Facebook for sheer reach. But Naveda was worried the change had impacted the site’s loyal readers, too:

We are an in-depth investigative news source that does not build its audience on virality, and the bulk of our readership is quite loyal. In spite of that, we have come from weeks of high virality, given the political turmoil we live in. So users and traffic behavior has been very atypical in the last weeks. However, if we compare our current figures (after the change) with a typical week figures, we find we our referral traffic from Facebook fell by 48%, new users fell by 27%, but new sessions rose by 40%. While in a typical week new sessions represent around 32.5% of the total referral traffic by Facebook, this week it amounts to 45.9%. That might mean this week Facebook has undermined our reach to our most loyal Facebook subscribers.

Facebook has said that the test will run for a few months, and that its users have asked for changes that would allow them to see posts from “friends and family” more readily. The platform, of course, has always tested out new products with smaller segments (erm, like entire individual countries) of its user base. Facebook has said it currently isn’t planning to roll out the Explore feed globally, though it’s evaluating metrics like whether users are sharing and commenting more, and whether they say they prefer the change.

(Facebook already shifted the content of News Feed last year to emphasize friends and deemphasize brands. And anecdotally, many publishers saw decreased traffic flows from Facebook this year even before this test.)

I asked Facebook, among other things, why they chose these particular six countries — countries, as many have already noted, have seen enormous social and political turmoil in the past few years. Their answer didn’t address anything specific about the realities of its six testing grounds.

“I suggest they just test it with a subset of population in a country and then if they plan to roll out, please roll it out globally,” In Vichet told me. “If it is just a test to less developed countries, I feel there is some discrimination against less developed countries. I would love to know why Facebook chose those six countries.”

People at the news outlets I spoke to have been frantically reframing their strategies, in case the splitting of the feeds does indeed make users happy and Facebook decides to go with it more permanently.

“We have news alerts, and I think we’ll have to try to do more of that. We have an email newsletter already, which we send to our readers every morning, and now we might do a second for the evening also, to give them an update of what happened in the day,” Fernandez said. “We will try to use other forms of social media. Basically we know we have to strengthen our brand, and just try to get more people to look for us directly. That is hard now, but that longterm is the way to go. The question is, will we survive this.”

“Even though it is obvious that the engagement figures will remain at a low for quite some time, and that it will slow down us in achieving our goals, we think that in the middle run there might be a possibility that we see a change in users’ behavior that benefits organizations like ours,” Naveda said. “First, users need to get acquainted with the new Guatemalan Explore feed and actively choose to use it. That’s a real hindrance. But if they do, and Facebook does not privilege big media virality, we could benefit from a cleaner news feed. We know this is a huge ‘if,’ a very improbable ‘if.’ We are well aware that the probabilities of this happening are low, but we see a chance, given the profile of our users.”

POSTED     Oct. 26, 2017, 10:43 a.m.
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