About an hour into Congress’s Thursday morning hearing on the “filtering practices of social media platforms,” Rep. Lamar Smith (R) mentioned an article from The Outline about the effect Facebook’s January news feed change had on publishers. Though he got the general idea posed by the headline right, Smith was wrong about practically everything else, and went on to try and use to back up his conspiratorial claim that Facebook is purposefully suppressing conservative voices.
“The tech website The Outline found that the algorithm changes implemented by Facebook have disproportionately harmed conservative publishers on its social media platform,” said Smith. “They’re getting fewer readers while their liberal counterparts have not been impacted to the same degree.”
The data The Outline obtained from research tool BuzzSumo did indicate that right-wing publishers like Breitbart, Fox News, and Gateway Pundit experienced a significant drop in Facebook engagement in the month following Facebook’s decision to de-prioritize news on the timeline — but not because of some global conspiracy the silence the right. All of the affected sites (PragerU, Breitbart, Gateway Pundit, and Fox News), were hit hardest by the news feed change because they all use Facebook in a very similar way: They predominantly rely on polarizing headlines and direct, emotional appeals in order to drive engagement to their articles — all of which are antithetical to Facebook’s recent crusade against engagement bait and needlessly divisive language.
“[W]e will demote posts that go against one of our key News Feed values — authenticity,” explained Facebook in a December blog post on coming changes. “Similar to our other recent efforts to demote clickbait headlines and links to low-quality web page experiences, we want to reduce the spread of content that is spammy, sensational, or misleading in order to promote more meaningful and authentic conversations on Facebook.” Zuckerberg echoed the same tone less than a month later when he announced Facebook’s blanket de-prioritization of posts from news publishers. “Now, I want to be clear: by making these changes, I expect the time people spend on Facebook and some measures of engagement will go down,” he wrote in a post. “But I also expect the time you do spend on Facebook will be more valuable.”
The social media landscape has long been run as a “marketplace of ideas”: take a hands-off approach to policing content and the good will rise to the top, powered by the force of the market, they said. But that dream quickly fell apart as the bad actors realized what a “free for all” system really meant: the loudest and most incendiary win. And now, just as platforms are finally beginning to realize the error of their ways, they call foul, because they can no longer game the system as fully as they did before, so that has to be unfair, right?
This is part of the reason why Facebook’s news feed change affected liberal publishers like ShareBlue and BuzzFeed, too. It’s not a coordinated secret attack on a handful of sites; it’s part of the site’s larger, much more haphazard move away from news in general.