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Facebook’s News Feed policy may end up saving it after all

Facebook is taking the news out of the News Feed. After a year of many course corrections to flag and filter fake news and articles with misleading headlines, the company has decided to fundamentally devalue news as a part of what its users see on the website. In a post announcing this move, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that he expects engagement and time spent on the website to reduce as a result of this move. Which begs the question: why do it?

In the past year, Facebook has dealt with heat from investigators and civil society on its role in shaping public opinion, particularly in the US. A Senate subcommittee investigating Russian involvement in the 2016 Presidential elections grilled Facebook (along with Twitter and Google) for letting the Russian government reach as many people with fake news as they did. President Trump’s campaign is currently being investigated for collusion with Russian actors.

Facebook’s rapid adoption of news was a departure from the simple social networking model with which it started out. After all the headaches news has given Facebook, the company is basically admitting that the best way to deal with censorship and fake news is to have less news altogether. News has become more of a liability for the company — which has to testify before US lawmakers a second time now.

“Nobody cares about feed changes”

While devaluing news shaved off around $25 billion in Facebook’s market value overnight, employees have been more or less complacent. A Facebook employee told BuzzFeed News, “No one cares about feed changes.” Another said, “Facebook will become more local, and I think it’s good for humanity overall.” After all, it’s highly unlikely that a significant chunk of Facebook’s users will flee to a different platform — Facebook was able to add users aided by media companies, who in turn got Facebook users’ eyeballs. But Facebook remains Facebook, and its userbase is likely to stay.

Facebook says that this move could help it grow in the long run. After all, social media is much more than just news. According to a study published in the Qualitative Market Journal, only two of ten ‘uses and gratifications’ for social media have anything to do with news: information sharing and information seeking. Facebook in particular is fundamentally a discovery platform, not one where people seek out specific content.

More subscriptions?

The most unhealthy outcome of Facebook’s business model has been that news organizations have relied too much on the company. Now that using Facebook to aid customer discovery (and then Google to monetize their actual presence once they get on the site) is no longer going to sustain their business, what will they do? As paid subscriptions rise in number across the news industry, at least in the US, that model of monetization may (hopefully) gain more traction. After all, what’s better than having readers directly pay cash to sustain journalism?

It’s certainly a much healthier model than multiple publishers simultaneously bombarding users’ News Feeds and crowding on it in a way that individual users may find it hard to compete with. Incidental consumption of news (on news feeds) versus seeked consumption of news (which you actively search for and open) has been a long-running tussle in the news media, and Facebook’s move is a huge score in favour of seeked consumption.

What happens in India?

Not everybody can be The Ken. With a single story every weekday, the website has built a loyal but small audience of tech ecosystem enthusiasts who pay a hefty sum (by Indian standards) for a subscription to its paywalled content. That is not an option for most publishers.

Prerna Koul Mishra, who heads social media for the India Today group, wrote on one of the group’s digital arms, DailyO, that “We could safely assume that a larger part of Facebook’s Indian subscribers [bank] on it for news (especially in the vernacular space, which is also typical to India).” Koul added that user controls to keep news at the top of the News Feed on Facebook were not available in India, as they are in the US. “Given that Facebook algorithm can read numbers but not sentiments, using that as a factor of deciding what is meaningful is a bit of a pipe-dream, at least for places like India,” she said.

Filter bubbles

Filter bubbles, which lock users into content that affirms their own biases and pre-conceived notions, have been around ever since Facebook started algorithmically deciding what showed up on individual users’ feeds — in fact, here’s a TED talk on the subject where Mark Zuckerberg is in the audience, from six years ago. By devaluing news altogether, Facebook has found a blunt instrument with which to pop those bubbles. Instead of increasing productive engagement across bubbles (who knows if that’s even possible on social media) the company has elected to just eliminate those categories of ideological engagement altogether. Will this work? We’ll know as publishers see less and less hits from Facebook in coming days. For now, though, they must find other ways to make money.

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