Facebook accused of impacting already fragile democracies, with its new trial

The experiment involves removal of promoted and public posts


Facebook started an experiment on 19 October, involving removal of promoted and public posts from the main news feed. This experiment started in six countries including, Sri Lanka, Guatemala, Bolivia, Cambodia, Serbia and Slovakia.

The six countries are not at all happy with this new policy and are criticizing Facebook for disrupting their democracy and politics.

Facebook removed all the public posts to a secondary news feed called ‘Explore’. However, these removed posts also included posts from different media organization pages. Media organizations in these six countries are suffering noticeably, as they lost their most important publishing platforms.

“The Facebook explore tab killed 66% of our traffic. Just destroyed it … years of really hard work were just swept away,” says Diana Fernandez, a journalist and member of the editorial board at Guatemala news site Soy502. “It has been catastrophic, and I am very, very worried.”

According to CrowdTangle, a Facebook owned analytics site, interactions for some broad range of Slovakian Facebook pages fell by 60% overnight. However, Filip Struhárik, a Slovakian journalist reported that the situation has since worsened, falling by a further 5%.

While this change didn’t affect the big sites much, the smaller sites and publishers are horribly suffering.

“Lower reach can be a problem for smaller publishers, citizens’ initiatives, small NGOs. They can’t afford to pay for distribution on Facebook by boosting posts and they don’t have infrastructure to reach people other ways.” Said Struhárik.

Struhárik is a journalist at a Slovakian news site Denník N, he says that his employer will survive the change, as the news agency has subscription revenue, that means it doesn’t rely on Facebook traffic and ensures that its readers go straight to its homepage for news.

However, Fernandez works for Soy502, which is a newly formed site in Guatemala, a country with unstable democracy, where journalists and civil society groups strive hard to be heard.

“We currently have a smear campaign that is targeting journalists, which is already vicious, fuelled by interest groups who are against the anti-corruption drive in our country,” She says. “We are regarded in the region as a success story on media for the digital age. This can destroy us.”

The transfer of media posts from the main feed has somehow satisfied the users who were annoyed of the excess Facebook traffic, however users who really wanted to see posts from sites they followed, now have to click over and find them in the Explore feed.

All the public posts from different pages are present at the secondary feed altogether, including posts from media organizations, funny meme pages and other. Users have to now search through the whole traffic to find the respective post they acquire.

“I don’t know what the criteria used to show news is. I see a lot of junk in the feed. At least with past algorithms you had an idea of what would show up. With these, it’s completely strange,” said Fernandez.

She said that her explore feed is filled with wrestling videos and TV reality shows, however she found very few news-related posts.

While Struhárik from Slovakia, reported, “ My explore feed looks quite normal, but a few people told me that they see distinct content here – old jokes, alt-right pages, posts by non-standard politicians.”

“We have regional elections in two weeks, and a lot of members of the fascist party are candidates, so it’s not a good time to hide posts of serious news and show people a strange cocktail of random popular posts.”

Well, where there are losers, there are winners. According to the chief executive of Facebook mega-publisher SocialFlow, Jim Anderson, “millions of publishers of all shapes and sizes have pages on Facebook, so there may well be someone out there who benefits.”

“In general, publisher’s concern is that the news feed is the primary Facebook experience for most users. Getting two billion people in a new place is at all order.”

Facebook had always been coming up with new ideas and experiments based on its user’s needs. The experiments are never implemented on the whole world but rather some specific area. Like the new Facebook stories feature was experimented on Ireland first; the trial for a new camera app started from Brazil and the test for adverts in Messenger began from Australia.

Unlike the past experiments, this time Facebook focused on smaller less developed countries that matter less to the company’s bottom line. In other words the nations which have been hit are those with the most ‘riding on a stable’ media ecosystem.

“Independent media in my country is vital to building a new democracy and fighting corruption,” says Otto Angel, a broadcast journalist in Guatemala.

“Right now, we use Facebook Live to broadcast judicial hearings in corruption cases. With this ‘catastrophe’, we lose around 57% of clicks a day”

“If I could speak with some officer of Facebook, I will ask if they can take back this project,” said Angel.

Fernandez accused Facebook of being ignorant and not caring about its test subjects. She said that Facebook has targeted emerging markets, where media industries are still trying hard to stand on their feet.

“It’s like it took sites in emerging markets where we don’t really matter. We at Soy502 worked really hard to become a viable, respectable news site four years ago, and it all can be destroyed right away.” She said

For those agencies, which completely rely on Facebook for Political campaigns, breaking news and news reports, this situation is alarming.

“I’m worried about the impact of Facebook on democracy,” said Fernandez. “One company in particular has a gigantic control on flow of information worldwide. This alone should be worrisome. It’s downright Orwellian.”

On Monday, Adam Mosseri, Facebook’s head of news feed, said, “We have no current plans to roll out this globally.” He stated that the purpose of this test was to check whether the users liked “public” and “private” posts kept separate. If, the result of this experiment is positive and Facebook does find that the metrics it seeks to optimize are improved, then it might change its plans.

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