Is it algorithms? Or maybe censorship? Or do people just not care anymore? These are the questions going through many people’s minds as it becomes increasingly more difficult to stay informed in our world.
Facebook became the top source for driving news and information to people in 2015. According to Parse.ly’s chief technical officer, Andrew Montalenti, latest estimates show that social media sources (of which Facebook is by far the largest) accounted for about 43% of the traffic to the Parse.ly network of media sites, while Google accounted for just 38%.
Now you might also have been hearing how Facebook’s algorithm has changed and many publishers are now seeing a decline in traffic from Facebook. There are likely a number of reasons for this and we will get to them shortly.
The cries of ‘Fake News’ began hitting the internet following Hillary Clinton’s loss of the U.S. election. A scared, shocked, and tattered elite and mainstream media found out the true power of independent media and its influence. WikiLeaks was able to publish leak after leak during the election that independent media made popular, while mainstream media tried to bury and debunk it.
The popularity of this content and resulting change in public opinion show we are in a very unique time, one where mainstream media can’t simply bully their way into everyone’s minds like they once could.
It’s important to note that we also exist in an age so incredibly obsessed with physical proof that we rarely give credit to gut feelings and intuition, which happen to have been the inspiration behind most amazing discoveries and understandings we love and admire today.
Having been in media for almost eight years now running Collective Evolution, one of the largest independent media outlets in the world, I can tell you from from my own gut instinct that there is a war on information right now and it’s being fought harder now than ever before.
Enter Fake News
A shocked democratic camp looked for someone to blame after its election loss. After going through a series of blame candidates, eventually things turned to ‘fake news’ and websites that promote ‘Russian propaganda.’ A list of websites began circulating that were allegedly responsible for reporting fake news. While I know for a fact that some of the websites on that list did and do report fake news, many of them don’t. Instead, they simply bring forth a perspective you won’t hear on mainstream news, one that threatens specific, politically charged rhetoric and agendas.
Literally on the DAY this list was released, we began seeing a decline in our organic reach on Facebook, and a big one at that. Whether by coincidence or not, the change was instantaneous. To us it was easy to see what was happening, but we wanted to be sure. So we began asking Facebook page admins who run pages that do not report on news like us if their reach had dropped. It hadn’t.
The graph below beautifully illustrates what happened. The very day the fake news craze began taking over the media, our organic reach suddenly dropped. Even before anyone could figure out who the culprits were, whether they were actually producing fake news or not, we had been targeted.
Was it a calculated effort? An excuse to drop reach on websites that challenge mainstream propaganda and conjecture? I’m sure we will find out in years to come, but so far it has been interesting to see.
About two weeks after this happened I was doing a live interview in Toronto. After the interview I had the chance to meet with and speak with audience members who told me they have been following CE for many years and engage with it every day. After all of this I finally asked them, “Do you still see our content in your newsfeed?” With puzzled looks they recalled, “No, now that you mention it — I don’t see it anymore.” I grinned and told them to make sure they visit our page or website manually since it’s unlikely they will see our content in their feed any longer.
Following that, I decided to run a quick survey on my own personal Facebook profile. I asked if people ever see any CE content in their newsfeed anymore. The results were very interesting.
Of the 190 people that responded, 18% said they still see it in some form, whether once a day or a couple times per week. Of those, about 30% see it because they have set their News Feed to show CE first. These 190 people are people I engage with quite regularly. I see them engage with CE’s content often and know they support our work. So why, then, and all of a sudden, do they not see something they engage with regularly? Facebook always touts that “if you create good, engaging content, your audience will continue to see it,” but that simply isn’t happening.
Even when I scroll through my own News Feed, I only see posts from pages like Quartz, BuzzFeed, CBC News, and so forth. These are all pages I don’t even have ‘liked.’ And they aren’t sponsored posts, either. The vast majority of the remainder of posts I see are updates from friends that are typically about their day. What happened to all the interesting links, videos, and other content I used to see?
In August of 2016 Facebook announced a new algorithm update that would predict which posts a user might find “informative” and prioritize said posts in the user’s News Feed. The challenge here is, what if it is wrong? How does a user define what he or she likes? What if it’s a cover for forms of censorship?
So What’s the Story?
Facebook must do things that people want, that people ask for. After all, they are creating a platform and running a business to please many people. Facebook has told us through their many reports that people want to see updates from friends, not from pages, and so they have been slowly changing the News Feed. But the funny thing is, regardless of what seems to change, the big brands like BuzzFeed, VICE, and HuffPost always seem to have a spot in the feed. Why?
And why do we keep receiving emails and messages from our audience saying they want to see our content in their feed but don’t anymore? Is it true that users don’t want to see pages? Maybe Facebook took it too far? Is there censorship going on?
Facebook must also please shareholders. Having businesses pay for reach or other forms of advertisement is an obvious monetization model for Facebook, and this is totally acceptable. They also must build an algorithm that organizes the millions of posts put forth every day into relevant information for its users. This is fair. But you must wonder, if users are engaging heavily with something, why suddenly stop showing it to them? How do you suddenly decide they shouldn’t see it?
How to See What You Care About
It’s clear that Facebook is on its way out when it comes to being a platform for staying informed and getting news you care about. It is becoming (or rather, returning to) something that connects you to your friends and puts advertising in front of you to purchase products — again, totally fine. But personally, I don’t see much value in my News Feed. I imagine many users are feeling the same and have to change the way they use Facebook if they want to keep up with what’s important to them. This also creates space for another platform to come along that will provide people with what they truly want.
Information consumption habits are going to have to change if you want to stay informed. If that’s important to you, here’s what you can do:
1. Sign up to daily newsletters from the websites you love. You can do so with CE’s here.
2. Set the pages you like to ‘See First’ in your News Feed. This can be done quite easily and will help to keep you informed. Simply hover over the “Following” button and click “See First.”
3. Download mobile apps that belong to the sites you love to stay in touch with them.
4. Manually go to a website or Facebook page each day to stay up to date.
5. Join any existing communities your favourite websites might have.