“Protecting our community is more important than maximizing our profits,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said on 1 November but increasing earnings seems to be the rationale behind the disturbing change that Facebook has been testing in six countries (Slovakia, Serbia, Bolivia, Guatemala, Sri Lanka and Cambodia) since mid-October.
Under this change, news media stories no longer appear in the main “News Feed” unless they pay to appear there. The “News Feed” now only shows content from the user’s “friends” and paid content including advertisements. News media content is relegated to a less prominent “Explore” feed.
“In our view, this arrangement reinforces a discriminatory, pay-based distribution of media content that threatens journalism’s ability to survive,” RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said. “Given social media’s role in providing access to the news media, it would be dangerous for journalism to be relegated to Facebook’s cellars.”
In response to the outcry about the experiment, Facebook has said it is just a test and that, for the time being, there is no question of extending it to other countries. If extended, it would further undermine the news media, whose content it already rendered less visible by ads and other forms of non-journalistic content, including PR content and rumors, which Facebook displays prominently.
“We call on Facebook to behave more responsibly,” said Elodie Vialle, the head of RSF’s Journalism and Technology Desk. “We are extremely worried about the way this test is being conducted, the lack of transparency and the potential consequences for the media. Facebook’s goal is clear. It wants to keep its users on its site for as long as possible. But this must not threaten journalistic freedom and independence by undermining their practitioners.”
Preserving the media’s watchdog role
Facebook has given no explanation for the six countries chosen for the trial and, although it has established many partnerships with news media, especially via its Facebook Journalism Project, it gave the media in these six countries no warning.
The California-based giant’s actions have an impact on democracy and media freedom. Some news websites, whose readership has plummeted since the start of the test, play an essential watchdog role in countries with authoritarian regimes, where journalists not working for media oligarchs often migrate to Facebook.
In Serbia, for example, independent media have been gagged by President Aleksandar Vučić and the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) since last May’s presidential election.
In Slovakia, the media have had four times fewer interactions (likes, comments, shares) since Facebook launched the Explore Feed, according to Filip Struhárik of the Dennik N news website.
“A company that big also has an enormous responsibility and cannot just do as it pleases,” he wrote on Medium. “What managers [at Facebook] consider a small test can cause serious problems in some countries.”
With much less access to their readers, some media outlets will be condemned to die. Dina Fernández of the Guatemalan news site Soy502 told the Guardian newspaper: “The Facebook explore tab killed 66% of our traffic. Just destroyed it … years of really hard work were just swept away.”
This is also the case in Cambodia, one of the six countries, where Facebook has overtaken television as one of the main sources of news, according to Jenni Reid, the Phnom Penh Post website editor.
Forced into digital servitude, under growing pressure to swear loyalty to Facebook in order to survive, the media are finding it increasingly impossible to turn back.