Company’s head of news feed says test is to see if users prefer only friends’ posts in timeline, but journalists in affected countries warn of danger to democracy
Facebook is testing whether or not people prefer “personal and public content” being separated as part of its test in which it hid all non-paid posts, said the company’s head of news feed, Adam Mosseri.
Speaking after a Guardian report revealed the radical change, forced on six small nations around the world, Mosseri said Facebook “currently” has no plans to roll the experiment out further. But he did not address whether or not the test would become general policy worldwide if the results show that Facebook users do prefer the news-free news feed.
The test, which relegated all published content in six different countries to the “explore feed”, a new Facebook feature rolling out worldwide, had a devastating effect on engagement for journalistic organisations in those countries, which include Slovakia, Guatemala and Bolivia.
In Slovakia a broad selection of the 60 largest Facebook pages saw a decline in engagement of between two-thirds and three quarters. Local journalists in Guatemala expressed concern at the “catastrophic” change, reporting that the new feed mixed their work in with “preposterous” sites, enabling the spread of propaganda with a potentially pernicious effect on democracy as a whole.
Dina Fernandez, a journalist with Guatemalan site Soy502, said that she is “very very worried” by the change, “not only because it has decimated our numbers but also because the feed pops up with preposterous sites”.
“The danger for the spread of propaganda and the political instrumentalisation of social media, particularly in countries with fragile democracies like ours, is acute,” she said.
In his statement, Facebook’s Mosseri said: “We always listen to our community about ways we might improve news feed. People tell us they want an easier way to see posts from friends and family. We are testing having one dedicated space for people to keep up with their friends and family, and another separate space, called explore, with posts from pages.
Some of the confusion stems from the fact that Facebook created a very different version of the explore feed for the rest of the world. Outside of the six affected countries, which also includes Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Serbia, the explore feed is designed to introduce Facebook users to pages they do not already follow.“The goal of this test is to understand if people prefer to have separate places for personal and public content,” Mosseri added. “We will hear what people say about the experience to understand if it’s an idea worth pursuing any further. There is no current plan to roll this out beyond these test countries or to charge pages on Facebook to pay for all their distribution in news feed or explore. Unfortunately, some have mistakenly made that interpretation — but that was not our intention.”
In the test subjects, the explore feed still shows posts from pages unknown to the user – which can include low-quality meme groups, as well as extremely skewed or untrustworthy news sites – but it mixes in posts from those sites the visitor has actually chosen to see.
Despite Mosseri’s claim that the test is to see if users prefer a separation between personal and public posts, there is one way publishers can place their content back on the news feed: by paying to do so. Promoted posts still appear in the real news feed, as they always have done.
While media organisations reacted with concern to the news of the test, some Facebook users weren’t quite so upset. “I kind of miss the Facebook that was JUST my friends on my feed,” said one.
Alex Hern, Last modified on Tuesday 24 October 2017 11.53 EDT