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Facebook: Giving users what they want or helping censorship?

Ivica Petrovic
November 3, 2017

Facebook is testing a new function across six countries. With this, media outlets' and other companies' products will be less prominently placed on its page. Will the move impede freedom of the press?

Facebook User Logo Symbolbild
Image: Reuters/D. Ruvic

Facebook began testing newly reordered "News Feeds" on October 19. These determine what users see on their own Facebook pages. The new system is currently being tested in Serbia, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Bolivia and Slovakia.

The most important change is that users, for whom an algorithm selected and displayed what it determined to be the most "important" posts, will now be given the choice between two news feeds. The experiment, as Facebook calls the test, is designed to determine how users react to the choice. The new page layout will separate posts from friends and family and those from other senders. The "Main Feed" will now feature posts from friends, whereas posts from mass media sources, companies and other public pages will appear on a second, less prominently displayed "Explore Feed." If news outlets or companies want their product to appear in the main feed they will be required to pay for such placement.

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In just a few short weeks the move has led to a drastic reduction in traffic on media-linked Facebook pages in all of the above-mentioned countries. In Slovakia, for instance, and similarly in Guatemala, the visibility of such postings has dropped by a third. In Cambodia, it is said that media outlets have had 20 percent fewer readers, and blogs that had registered as many as 12,000 clicks were now getting as few as 2,000. Although exact numbers in Serbia have yet to be published, some DW pages in the country have registered 70 percent fewer clicks since the experiment began.

Flooded feeds

"I think Facebook wants to find out if users prefer to see their friends' posts or if they are also interested in content offered by other sources," as Vladimir Cuk, a social media expert in Belgrade, told DW. "Content from other providers has flooded Facebook feeds to such a degree that people cannot even see posts from their friends." Moreover, says Cuk, the strategy will force companies to alter their relationships with Facebook as well as with users.

Logically, the new structure affects those entities that post often and much on Facebook – that means, primarily, media outlets. "Some media outlets post 40 or 50 times a day, flooding people's feeds. The tactic has less to do with content and much more to do with maintaining a presence on Facebook." The explore feed will make such posts less visible. "That will mainly hamper those outlets that have based their strategy on posting as often as possible," says Cuk.

An image from a Belgrade exhibition on media and politics in Serbia
Young people in particular get much of their news and information via Facebook and TwitterImage: DW/I. Petrovic

Invasion of the trolls

Traditional media outlets in Serbia see themselves constantly confronted with direct or indirect pressure. That pressure ranges from direct threats against public media journalists to economic pressure applied to private media companies, especially through mechanisms such as the control of paid advertising. The situation has caused many citizens to turn to Facebook to get their news. For a large portion of society, Facebook and Twitter have become people's main source of information. "It is a reaction to government control of traditional media outlets," says Zeljko Bodrozic, from the Independent Journalists' Association of Serbia (NUNS). "Besides a few other online portals, social media outlets have become the only source for independent news information."

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But Bodrozic emphasizes that such sources can only augment traditional media outlets and not replace them. Television outlets, as well as radio and popular daily newspapers, continue to set the tone and influence opinion. "At the same time," says Bodrozic, "social media has been 'hijacked' by the governing Serbian Progressive Party (SNS). The government cannot forbid or limit internet use, but it can poison independent news sources or make them appear senseless by actively deploying internet trolls."

Zeljko Bodrozic says the fact that Facebook has chosen Serbia as one of its test markets for revamped news feeds is especially unfortunate when viewed in this context: "There are hardly any independent publicists in the country, and the government is above all interested in maintaining its grip on power and shutting down all opposition." Serbia has been riddled withthe problem of the dissemination of controlled and intentionally misleading information by the country's major media outlets, but social media had offered a small space in which discussion could take place. "Now that is being made all the more difficult," says Bodrozic.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic keeps a tight grip on his country's mediaImage: Klix.ba/K. Softic

Media outlets need a new strategy

Many observers fear Facebook's changes will have a negative impact in those countries in which media outlets have already been robbed of their freedom and in which social media plays an important role in users' ability to access independent information.

Social media expert Vladimir Cuk does not believe that Facebook is pursuing any deeper political aims in its restructuring. He says that it is a straightforward business decision, adding that the whole experiment is about the "pay to play" business model: organizations that want their product to appear more prominently on a Facebook side must be willing to pay to make that happen. "Facebook wants vendors to pay more and to change their behavior. That may, for instance, mean that they concentrate more heavily on providing content to which users react and interact more strongly."

Although Facebook has said that it will not expand the experiment to include other countries, Vladimir Cuk is certain that it will serve as an example other companies will follow. "Other social media providers will likely begin doing the same at some point, and commercial providers will be forced to give the people what they want," says Cuk.