Few news providers will now be liking Facebook
John Naughton, the Guardian
Winston Churchill famously defined “appeasement” as “being nice to a crocodile in the hope that he will eat you last”. By that definition, many of the world’s biggest news publishing organisations have been in the appeasement business for at least the past two years and the crocodile to which they have been sucking up is Facebook, the social networking giant.
The reason for this extraordinary self-abasement is simple: Facebook currently has more than 1.6 billion users worldwide, most of whom are very engaged with the service. Around half of them check their page every day, for example, and when they are online they spend significant amounts of time on the site or its smartphone app.
More significantly, research by the Pew Research Center revealed that these users increasingly get much of their news from their Facebook feeds. Accordingly, publishers started doing deals with Facebook to publish some (or all) of their content on it, with initially agreeable results in the shape of “referrals” – ie traffic to their own websites coming from the social network.
There was, however, a fly in the ointment: publishers’ webpages that appeared in Facebook users’ news feeds tended to load rather slowly, which was a pain if you were accessing Facebook via a smartphone and paying through the nose for mobile data. So in 2015, Facebook began offering publishers an attractive fix for the problem. It was called Instant Articles and if your content appeared as an Instant Article then it loaded very quickly indeed, which was good news for both publishers and users.
But even as publishers’ dependence on Facebook inexorably increased, few of them were exactly overjoyed. Au contraire: their mood reminded one of the grim pragmatism of the Finns when dealing with the old Soviet Union: they simply had to get on with their powerful neighbour, no matter how disagreeable they found that necessity. And they did everything in their power to avoid getting on the wrong side of the Bear. So it was with publishers and Facebook – which is why Churchill’s aphorism often came to mind.
The wider significance of what was happening did not escape some astute observers. In her recent Humanitas lecture at Cambridge, for example, Columbia University’s Emily Bell pointed out that, for the first time in history, major news organisations had lost control of how their content was distributed. And George Brock, of City University, spotted that in becoming a major distributor of journalistic content, Facebook was implicitly acquiring editorial responsibilities, responsibilities that it neither acknowledged nor welcomed. But to desperate editors, faced with declining circulations and ad revenues, these seemed like theoretical considerations: however much they might dislike or fear Facebook, they had to deal with it because it was where their audiences were increasingly to be found.
What people lost sight of, however, is that Facebook is a technology company, not a media organisation. It is interested in journalism only in the same way that it is interested in LOLcats – as stuff that its users “like”, share and natter about. And on Wednesday, the company made that brutally clear. “We are not in the business of picking which issues the world should read about,” the senior executive responsible for the news feed said. “We are in the business of connecting people and ideas – and matching people with the stories they find most meaningful.” To that end, the company is tweaking its feed algorithm to put friends and family first. “Facebook was built on the idea of connecting people with their friends and family. That is still the driving principle of news feed today.”
And the implications of this? “Content posted by publishers will show up less prominently in news feeds, resulting in significantly less traffic to the hundreds of news media sites that have come to rely on Facebook.” It’s basically an announcement that “the crocodile will eat you now”. And if you’ve bet your ranch on Facebook, it’s time to hedge that bet.
But there is also a wider and more troubling implication. Social media are powerful engines for creating digital echo chambers, which is one reason why our politics is becoming so partisan. Brexiters speak only unto Brexiters. And Remainers ditto. During the referendum campaign I surveyed my Twitter feed. I “follow” 800 people, voted to Remain and think of myself as being relatively open-minded and interested in contrarian opinion. But my guess is that most of those whom I follow also voted Remain, and insofar as pro-Brexit tweets appeared in my feed, they were generally being ridiculed as pernicious, ill-informed or just plain daft. We all inhabit echo chambers now and all Facebook has done is to increase the level of insulation on those inhabited by its users.