20 October 2019
Facebook's recent moves related to demoted posts and news feeds have caused disquiet among publishers, especially the smaller players. Photo: Reuters
Facebook's recent moves related to demoted posts and news feeds have caused disquiet among publishers, especially the smaller players. Photo: Reuters

Is Facebook a friend or foe for publishers?

Facebook has emerged as one of the world’s biggest media platforms as many traditional media organizations as well as columnists have stepped up focus on the social network in a bid to attract more readers online.

The social platform, which boasts more than 2 billion monthly active users, has grown in importance to such an extent that many media bosses have set numbers such as Facebook fans, page likes and user engagement among the parameters in performance appraisals of editors.

There is no doubt that Facebook is proving a very useful tool for media entities to expand the reach of their content, especially as traditional print readership and ad revenues are in decline. That said, not too many people in the media business would want to describe the tech giant as an ally.

As Facebook’s clout has grown, there are increasing worries that the company is trying to dictate terms to publishers, forcing organizations to pay up if they want to reach more readers/consumers.

The social network is being accused of abusing its market dominance as it lays out new rules in relation to the content posted on its platform.  

The firm’s latest announcement that it will demote posts that beg for likes and shares, as well as earlier moves for split newsfeeds are viewed with concern among people in the media industry.

The tech behemoth, by deploying artificial intelligence tools, is gaining more control on what its users get to read on their newsfeed, observers say, describing it as a tactic to force publishers into paying for the best newsfeed position.

Facebook said this week that after studying hundreds of thousands of posts, it has decided to start demoting “engagement bait” posts that request users into taking actions like sharing, tagging, liking, or commenting.

The company said posts that ask people for help, advice, or recommendations like raising money for charity or asking for travel advice won’t be affected by the update.

The world’s largest social network said it has deployed machine learning technology to detect different types of engagement bait. It will implement stricter demotion for pages that have bait engagement in near future, giving publishers time to adapt.

The move comes at a time when global media organizations are playing with Facebook’s algorithms in a bid to get their posts on the top of users’ newsfeed every day. Media owners believe the higher the position their post will be on a newsfeed, the more the advertising dollars that can be generated.

Amid this situation, editors around the world have been busy in learning how to deal with Facebook algorithms through eye-catching headlines and hashtags of popular keywords, aiming to get higher ranking on newsfeed. 

Boosting user engagement on social media and expanding the readership is the foremost priority for many newsroom decision-makers today.

The factor has become so critical that many journalists find themselves competing with Facebook algorithms, forcing them to think of stories that will “make it” and garner huge likes, rather than those that are actually important for society.

Unfortunately for them, Facebook doesn’t want to be just a notice board for traditional media to post stories for free and attract eyeballs. The tech titan has its own big data analytics and machine learning system to study users’ reading pattern and behavior and the topics they like. And it will use the information to steer the content flow and monetize as much as possible. 

Facebook says the system is aimed at improving the so-called user experience, but the ultimate goal may be just to generate more advertising dollars. In effect, user engagement is sought to be sold to advertisers, helping the firm reap ever more income.

Some communications experts have noted that Facebook is killing all possible ways for publishers to boost their coverage at no cost.

This is not the first time that Facebook is changing its algorithm on the newsfeed. A few weeks ago, the company launched an Explore Feed tab to recommend users stories from different fan pages.

That will enable users to receive popular content, but fan page owners may have to pay for their posts to be published on targeted users’ newsfeed. The move was met with criticism from some publishers who said Facebook is forcing them to pay for their posts.

The US-based firm tweaks its algorithm all the time to prioritize or de-prioritize certain types of content. Last week, it announced an algorithm tweak intended to show users more video. In the past, it cracked down on spammy posts like clickbait or links that send users to websites full of ads.

The frequent changes of Facebook algorithm from time to time could force smaller publishers to abandon the platform as they may not have the budget to promote their pages in a legitimate way. This could gradually turn Facebook into a pure advertising platform, rather than a social network.

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EJ Insight writer