Over the past five years, as it has grown into a dominant source of online news, Facebook’s news feed has reshaped journalism in profound ways. Its algorithmic rankings, which determine what news its users see (and what gets buried), rewarded outlets for framing their stories around provocative or outrageous headlines. Outlets accustomed to building long-term reader loyalty through accuracy and nuance found their business models undermined by this system, which made little effort to distinguish between high-quality and low-quality sources of information.
Meanwhile, scores of new outlets sprang up specifically to capitalize on the tremendous business opportunities that Facebook had created for those willing to optimize their content for its algorithm. As the likes of Upworthy, ViralNova, and Bored Panda boomed (if only temporarily, in some cases), the metro newspapers that had formed the backbone of American journalism withered. This gradually turned not only Facebook but the internet at large into a sort of click-bait dystopia.
More recently, Facebook has been trying earnestly to correct for some its own massive distortions of media incentives, with success that might generously be characterized as moderate.
So you can imagine how thrilled journalists were Tuesday to wake up to a new set of “news feed publisher guidelines,” in which Facebook admonishes news outlets for following the unwritten rules of social engagement that Facebook itself created. Publishers, Facebook tells us, ought to avoid click-bait at all costs and focus instead on producing content that’s “meaningful,” “informative,” and “accurate.” (The company also created a little video to explain to publishers how its ranking system works.)
A few of us—perhaps not that many, since journalists who couldn’t adapt to Facebook’s new order have been mostly laid off or left the profession—are old enough to remember the days when we didn’t need tech companies telling us to focus on those values. That’s because those same tech companies hadn’t yet rolled out massively influential news-ranking algorithms that punished the very outlets that embodied them.
Facebook’s new guidelines are all the more galling to news outlets because they come at the same time that the company is running tests that threaten the very model Facebook built for them. As the Guardian, Recode, and others have recently reported, Facebook is testing a system in which publishers’ posts would be relegated from the main news feed to a separate feed called “Explore.” There, they’d be invisible to the majority of users most of the time unless those users intentionally sought them out. (Facebook responded to outcry about those tests on Monday evening, clarifying that they’re confined to a few countries and that the company currently has no plans to roll them out globally.)
Just because these new tests and guidelines are galling, however, doesn’t mean they’re all bad.
I read the guidelines as somewhat aspirational—not just for publishers, who should always aspire to accuracy and substance, but for Facebook itself. That is, Facebook genuinely wants its algorithm to prioritize these timeless journalistic virtues. But the reason it feels compelled to publish these guidelines is because its algorithm has failed to properly incentivize them.
I’ve spent time with Facebook’s news feed ranking team, and these days it’s full of smart people working hard to figure out what users really want and deliver it to them. It just happens that building an algorithm to rank stories according to things like accuracy and substance is extremely hard—perhaps impossible. And so, despite the company’s best efforts, publishers are still gaming it with ever more subtle and inventive forms of click-bait, including the sort of partisan pandering that has helped to further polarize public opinion in democracies around the world.
Think about it: If Facebook’s algorithm really incentivized authenticity, why would fake news purveyed by Kremlin-linked trolls have done so well in this last U.S. election cycle?
What Facebook is really doing here, then—even if it can’t quite admit it—is asking publishers for help in solving the problems Facebook itself helped to create. That is, it’s trying to clean up the news feed, but it knows it can’t do it alone. So with these guidelines, it’s signaling to news organizations that it’s serious in its intentions of prioritizing better-quality content, and that if they can deliver that, then it’s a goal Facebook will now at least endeavor to support. As obnoxious as that might feel to news organizations today, it’s at least better than Facebook simply not caring or continuing to blithely promote junk content to its users in pursuit of short-term engagement.
Viewed from that perspective, the tests in which Facebook is relegating publishers’ posts to a secondary feed might function as an implied threat—the stick to the engagement carrot that it’s dangling for outlets who get with its program. On the other hand, as Recode’s Peter Kafka points out, it’s all too easy for publishers to commit to the fallacy of thinking everything Facebook does to them is about them.
Realistically, it makes more sense to take Facebook at its word that this test is chiefly about figuring out what its users want. And it’s entirely believable—especially in this age of still-overwhelming click-bait—that users want more posts from their friends and fewer from the publishers that are constantly pushing provocative headlines in their face. It’s also consistent with a 2016 algorithm change (and an attendant statement of news feed values) in which Facebook pledged to put “friends and family first.” This doesn’t mean news would disappear from users’ feeds—just that they’d mostly see news when it’s shared by their friends rather than by the publishers whose pages they’ve followed.
Who knows whether any of this will fix the deep problems in the news industry, some of which Facebook has wrought. After all, there’s no guarantee that your friends and family will prove any more reliable than the publishers you follow when it comes to posting news that’s trustworthy. Still, if publishers take from this that they can no longer rely on clicks and likes from Facebook users to keep their businesses afloat, that’s probably a good thing for everyone in the long run.