As with any toxic relationship, the possibility of a breakup sparks feelings of terrorâand maybe a little bit of a relief. Thatâs the spot that Facebook has put the news business in. In January, the social media behemoth announced it would once again alter its News Feed algorithm to show users even more posts from their friends and family, and a lot fewer from media outlets.
The move isnât all that surprising. Ever since the 2016 election, the Menlo Park-based company has been under siege for creating a habitat where fake news stories flourished. Their executives were dragged before Congress last year to testify about how they sold ads to Russians who wanted to influence the U.S. election, and so, in some ways, itâs simply easier to get out of the news business altogether.
But for the many news outlets that have come to rely on Facebook funneling readers to their sites, the impact of a separation sounds catastrophic.
âThe End of the Social News Era?â a New York Times headline asked. âFacebook is breaking up with news,â an ad for the new BuzzFeed app proclaimed. In an open letter to Zuckerberg, San Francisco Chronicle Editor-in-Chief Audrey Cooper decried the social media companyâs sudden change of course.
âWe struggled along, trying to anticipate the seemingly capricious changes in your news-feed algorithm,âÂ she wrote in the Jan. 12 missive. âWe created new jobs in our newsrooms and tried to increase the number of people who signed up to follow our posts on Facebook. We were rewarded with increases in traffic to our websites, which we struggled to monetize.â
The strategy worked for a time, she says.
âWe were successful in getting people to âlikeâ our news, and you started to notice,â she wrote in her column. âStudies show more than half of Americans use Facebook to get news. That traffic matters because we monetize itâit pays the reporters who hold the powerful accountable.â
But just as newspapers learned to master Facebookâs black box, so, too, did more nefarious operations, Cooper noted. Consumers, meanwhile, have grimaced as their favorite media outlets have stooped to sensational headlines to lure Facebookâs web traffic. Theyâve become disillusioned by the flood of hoaxes and conspiracy theories that have run rampant on the site.
A Knight Foundation/Gallup poll released earlier this year revealed that only a third of Americans had a positive view of the media. About 57 percent said websites or apps using algorithms to determine which news stories readers see was a major problem for democracy. Two-thirds believed the media being âdramatic or too sensational in order to attract more readers or viewersâ was a major problem.
Now, sites that relied on Facebookâs algorithm have watched the floor drop out from under them when the algorithm changedâall while Facebook has gobbled up chunks of the print advertising revenue that had always sustained news operations.
Itâs all landed media outlets in a hell of a quandary: It sure seems like Facebook is killing journalism. But can journalism survive without it?
YOU WONâT BELIEVE WHAT HAPPENS NEXT
Itâs perhaps the perfect summation of the internet age: a website that started because a college kid wanted to rank which co-eds were hotter became a global Goliath powerful enough to influence the fate of the news industry itself.
When Facebook first launched its News Feed in 2006, it ironically didnât have anything to do with news. At least, not how we think of it. This was the site that still posted a little broken-heart icon when you changed your status from âIn a Relationshipâ to âSingle.â
The News Feed was intended to be a list of personalized updates from your friends. But in 2009, Facebook introduced its iconic âlikeâ button. Soon, instead of showing posts in chronological order, the News Feed began showing you the popular posts first.
And that made all the difference.
Facebook didnât invent going viralâgrandmas with AOL accounts were forwarding funny emails and chain letters when Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was still in grade schoolâbut its algorithm amplified it. Well-liked posts soared. Unpopular posts simply went unseen. Google had an algorithm too. So did YouTube.
Journalists were given a new directive: If you wanted readers to see your stories, you had to play by the algorithmâs rules. Faceless mystery formulas had replaced the stodgy newspaper editor as the gatekeeper of information.
So when the McClatchy Companyâa chain that owns 31 daily papers including the Sacramento Beeâlaunched its reinvention strategy last year, knowing how to get Facebook traffic was central.
âFacebook has allowed us to get our journalism out to hundreds of millions more people than it would have otherwise,â says McClatchy Vice President of News Tim Grieve, a fast-talking former Politico editor. âIt has forced us, and all publishers, to sharpen our game to make sure weâre writing stories that connect with people.â
With digital ad rates tied to web traffic, the incentives in the modern media landscape could be especially perverse: Write short, write lots. Pluck heartstrings or stoke fury.
In short, be more like Upworthy. A site filled with multi-sentence emotion-baiting headlines, Upworthy begged you to click by promising that you would be shocked, outraged or inspiredâbut not telling you why. By November 2013, Upworthy was pulling in 88 million unique visitors a month. With Facebookâs help, the formula spread.
Even magazines like Time and Newsweekâstoried publications that sent photojournalists to war zonesâbegan pumping out articles like, âDoes Reese Witherspoon Have 3 Legs on Vanity Fairâs Cover?â and âTrumpâs Hair Loss Drug Causes Erectile Dysfunction.â
Newsweekâs publisher went beyond clickbait; the magazine was actually buying traffic through pirated video sites, allegedly engaging in ad fraud.
In January, Newsweek senior writer Matthew Cooper resigned in disgust after several Newsweek editors and reporters whoâd written about the publisherâs series of scandals were fired. He heaped contempt on an organization that had installed editors who ârecklessly sought clicks at the expense of accuracy, retweets over fairnessâ and left him âdespondent not only for Newsweek but for the other publications that donât heed the lessons of this publicationâs fall.â
Mathew Ingram, who covers digital media for Columbia Journalism Review, says such tactics might increase traffic for a while. But readers hate it. Sleazy tabloid shortcuts give you a sleazy tabloid reputation.
âShort-term you can make a certain amount of money,â Ingram says. âLong-term youâre basically setting fire to your brand.â
CLICKBAIT AND SWITCH
Plenty of media outlets have tried to build their business on the foundation of the News Feed algorithm. But they quickly got a nasty surprise: That foundation can collapse in an instant. As Facebookâs News Feed became choked with links to Upworthy and its horde of imitators, the social network declared war on clickbait. It tweaked its algorithms, which proved catastrophic for Upworthy.
âIt keeps changing,â Ingram says, âEven if the algorithm was bad in some way, at least if itâs predictable, you could adapt.â
A pattern emerged. Step 1: Media outlets reinvent themselves for Facebook. Step 2: Facebook makes that reinvention obsolete.
Big publishers leaped at the chance to publish âInstant Articlesâ directly on Facebook, only to find that the algorithm soon charged, rewarding videos more than posts and rendering Instant Articles largely obsolete. So publishers like Mic.com, Mashable and Vice News âpivoted to video,â laying off dozens of journalists in the process.
âThen Facebook said they werenât as interested in video anymore,â Ingram says. âClassic bait and switch.â
Which brings us to the latest string of announcements: The News Feed, Zuckerberg announced in January, had skewed too far in the direction of social video posts from national media pages and too far away from personal posts from friends and family.
They were getting back to their roots.
Even before the announcement, news sites had seen their articles get fewer and fewer hits from Facebook. Last year, Google once again became the biggest referrer of news traffic as Facebook referrals decreased. Many sites published tutorials pleading with their readers to manually change their Facebook settings to guarantee the siteâs appearance in their news feeds.
âSome media outlets saw their traffic decline by as much as 30 to 40 percent,â Ingram says. âEverybody knew something was happening, but we didnât know what.â
It might be easy to mock those who chased the algorithm from one trend to another with little to show for it. But the reality is that many of them didnât really have a choice.
âYou pretty much have to do something with Facebook,â Ingram says. âYou have to. Itâs like gravity. You canât avoid it.â
In subsequent announcements, Facebook gave nervous local news outlets some better news: Theyâd rank local community news outlets higher in the feed than national ones. They were also launching an experiment for a new section called âToday In,â focusing on local news and announcements, beta-testing the concept in certain cities.
But in early tests, the site seemed to have trouble determining whatâs local.
The San Francisco Chronicle and other Bay Area news outlets say theyâre taking a âwait-and-seeâ approach to the latest algorithm, analyzing how the impact shakes out before making changes. Theyâve learned to not get excited.
âIt just, more and more, seems like Facebook and news are not super compatible,â says Shan Wang, staff writer at Harvard Universityâs Nieman Journalism Lab.
At least not for real news. For fake news, Facebookâs been a perfect match.
There was a time Facebook was positively smug about their impact on the world. After all, theyâd seen their platform fan the flames of popular uprisings during the Arab Spring in countries like Tunisia, Iran and Egypt.
âBy giving people the power to share, we are starting to see people make their voices heard on a different scale from what has historically been possible,â Â Zuckerberg bragged in a 2012 letter to investors under the header, âwe hope to change how people relate to their governments and social institutions.â
And Facebook certainly hasâthough not the way it intended.
A BuzzFeed investigation before the 2016 presidential election found that âfake newsâ stories on Facebook, hoaxes or hyper-partisan falsehoods, actually performed better on Facebook than stories from major trusted outlets like The New York Times.
That, experts speculated, is another reason why Facebook, despite its massive profits, might be pulling back from its focus on news.
âAs unprecedented numbers of people channel their political energy through this medium, itâs being used in unforeseen ways with societal repercussions that were never anticipated,â writes Samidh Chakrabarti, Facebookâs product manager for civic engagement, in a recent blog post. The exposure was widespread. A Dartmouth study found about a fourth of Americans visited at least one fake-news websiteâand Facebook was the primary vector of misinformation. While researchers didnât find fake news swung the election, the effect has endured.
Donald Trump has played a role. He snatched away the term used to describe hoax websites and wielded it as a blunderbuss against the press, blasting away at any negative reporting as âfake news.â
By last May, a Harvard-Harris poll found that almost two-thirds of voters believed that mainstream news outlets were full of fake news stories.
The danger of fake news, after all, wasnât just that weâd be tricked with bogus claims. It was that weâd be pummeled with so many different contradictory stories, with so many different angles, that the task of trying to sort truth from fiction just becomes exhausting.
So you choose your own truth. Or Facebookâs algorithm chooses it for you.
Every time you like a comment, chat or click on Facebook, the site uses that to figure out what you actually want to see: It inflates your own bubble, protecting you from facts or opinions you might disagree with.
And when it does expose you to views from the other side, itâs most likely going to be the worst examples, the trolls eager to make people mad online, or the infuriating op-ed that all your friends are sharing.
Facebook exec Chakrabartiâs blog post takes the tone of an organization working to understand how its platform was hijacked by foreign agents and then taking actions to get a grip on the situation. However, Wired Magazineâs March 2018 cover storyâan in-depth investigation into just what happened at Facebook between the 2016 primaries and nowâreveals that, at the time, Facebook was caught entirely off guard.
In November, shortly after Donald Trump won the White House, Zuckerberg claimed that it was âpretty crazyâ to think that fake news on Facebook had influenced the election. It wasnât until the spring and summer of 2017 that Facebook began to truly understand how their platform was usedâin a coordinated and deliberate wayâto spread disinformation and sow discord in the American electorate.
Many of the 3,000 Facebook ads that Russian trolls bought to influence the election werenât aimed at promoting Trump directly. They were aimed at inflaming division in American life by focusing on such issues as race and religion.
Facebook has tried to address the fake news problemâhiring fact checkers to examine stories, slapping âdisputedâ tags on suspect claims, putting counterpoints in related article boxesâbut with mixed results. The recent Knight Foundation/Gallup poll, meanwhile, found that those surveyed believed that the broader array of news sources actually made it harder to stay well-informed. And those who grew up soaking in the brine of social media arenât necessarily better at sorting truth from fiction. Far from it.
âOverall, young peopleâs ability to reason about the information on the internet can be summed up in one word: bleak,â Stanford researchers concluded in a 2016 study of over 7,800 students. More than 80 percent of middle-schoolers surveyed didnât know the difference between sponsored content and a news article.
Itâs why groups like Media Literacy Now have successfully pushed legislatures in states like Washington to put media literacy programs in schools. That includes teaching students how information was being manipulated behind the scenes, says the organizationâs president, Erin McNeill.
âWith Facebook, for example, why am I seeing this story on the top of the page?â she asks. âIs it because itâs the most important story, or is it because of another reason?â
But Facebookâs new algorithm threatens to make the fake news problem even worse. By focusing on friends and family, it could strengthen the filter bubble even further. Rewarding âengagementâ can just as easily incentivize the worst aspects of the internet.
You know whatâs really good at getting engagement? Hoaxes. Conspiracy theories. Idiots who start fights in comments sections. Nuance doesnât get engagement. Outrage does.
âMeaningful social interactionsâ is a hard concept for algorithms to grasp.
âItâs like getting algorithms to filter out porn,â Ingram says. âYou and I know it when we see it. [But] algorithms are constantly filtering out photos of women breastfeeding.â
Chronicle editor Audrey Cooper says she naively hoped Facebookâs corporate conscience would lead to a realization that it has an obligation to more than its shareholders.
âYet it is increasingly clear to me that Facebook, Twitter and, to some extent, Google, have no such compass,â she tells San Jose Inside. âIt is not Facebookâs job to help journalists find a workable business model; however, it is absolutely their responsibility to be transparent about how they are manipulating public opinion and discourse. They have failed to do that so far because there are significant financial liabilities in doing soâa cynical and disturbing justification.â
Facebook hasnât wanted to push beyond the algorithm and play the censor. In fact, itâs gone in the opposite direction. After Facebook was accused of suppressing conservative news sites in its Trending Topics section in 2016, it fired its human editors. (Today, conspiracy theories continue to show up in Facebookâs Trending Topics.)
Instead, to determine the quality of news sites, Facebook is rolling out a two-question survey about whether users recognized certain media outlets, and whether they found them trustworthy. The problem, as many tech writers pointed out, is that a lot of Facebook users, like Trump, consider the Washington Post and the New York Times to be âfake news.â
The other problem? There are a lot fewer trustworthy news sources out there. And Facebook bears some of the blame for that, too, Cooper says.
âIâve built my career on exposing hypocrisy and wrongdoing and expecting more of those with power, which is why I have repeatedly said Facebook has aggressively abdicated its responsibility to its users and our democracy,â she says. âI expect a lot more from them, as well all should.â
FEAST AND FAMINE
The internet, obviously, has been killing newspapers for a very long time. Why, say, would you pay a monthly subscription to the Daily Cow, when you can get the milk online for free? It killed other revenue sources as well. Craigslist cut out classified sections. Online dating killed personal ads. Amazon put many local mom-and-pop advertisers out of business.
At one time, alt-weeklies could rake in advertising money by selling cheaper rates and guaranteeing advertisers to hit a younger, hipper, edgier audience. But then Facebook came along. The site let businesses micro-target their advertisements at incredibly specific audiences. Like Google, Facebook tracks you across the web, digging deep into your private messages to figure out whether to sell you wedding dresses, running shoes or baby formula.
Itâs not that nobodyâs making massive amounts of money on advertising online. Itâs just that only two are: Facebook and Googleâand theyâre both destroying print advertising.
The decline in print advertising has ravaged the world of alt-weeklies, killing icons like the Boston Phoenix, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, the Philadelphia City Paper and the Baltimore City Paper. Dailies keep suffering, too, no matter how prestigious or internet-savvy. In January and February, the Bay Area News Group, a regional chain that includes several community newspapers in the South Bay and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Mercury News, slashed staff.
Yet the convergence of layoffs with the pressure to get web traffic has influenced coverage. When potential traffic numbers are an explicit factor in story selection and youâre short-staffed, you have to make choices. Stories about schools donât get many clicks. Weird crime stories doâlike the Willow Glen Residentâs reporting on a serial cat killer who was convicted last year.
Asked if thereâs any reason for optimism, Ingram, at the Columbia Journalism Review, lets out a wry laugh. If youâre not a behemoth like BuzzFeed, he says, your best bet is to be small enough to be supported by die-hard readers. Thatâs held true in Palo Alto. As most cities struggle to support a single publication, and as Bay Area News Group decimates staff at its South Bay community papers, the city of 70,000 is home to three local newspapers: the Daily Post, the Daily News and the Palo Alto Weekly.
âIf youâre really ... hyper-focusedâgeographically or on a topicâthen you have a chance,â Ingram says. âYour readership will be passionate enough to support you in some way.â
Thatâs one reason some actually welcome the prospect of less Facebook traffic. Slateâs Will Oremus recently wrote that less news on Facebook would eventually cleanse news of âthe toxic incentives of the algorithm on journalism.â
Maybe, the thinking goes, without a reliance on Facebook clicks, newspapers would once again be able to build trust with their readers. Maybe, the hope goes, readers would start seeking out newspapers directly again.
âThe Chronicle wants people to read our stories on any platform they prefer,â Cooper says. âWe want people to be exposed to excellent, responsible journalismâespecially now when so much of what masquerades as ânewsâ is anything but. We may change how we technically distribute news on various platforms as they all continue to evolve. What we wonât do is change the type of stories we pursue and how we choose to tell them.â
While Cooper has yet to hear from Zuckerberg about her open letter, she says sheâs gotten feedback from dozens of current and former Facebook employees, investors and advisers who told her, essentially, âYouâre on the right track.â
âTheyâre starting to say this publicly now, too,â Cooper says. âThatâs encouraging.â
Also encouraging is a recent announcement from her corporate team that Facebook plans to roll out some kind of subscription model.
âI donât know a lot about what it will entail, only that we will be among the first publishers to work with them on increasing our digital subscriptions,â Cooper says. âWhile Iâm encouraged that they are showing some level of interest in fulfilling their past promises, Iâm skeptical about their interest in truly promoting healthy public discourse. I hope they prove me wrong.â
A version of this article first appeared in the Inlander. Metro News/San Jose Inside Editor Jennifer Wadsworth contributed to this report.