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Less News Is Good News

Facebook is stepping back from the news business. Thank goodness.

Over the past five years, Facebook has dramatically reshaped the news: how it’s reported, how it’s framed, how it’s distributed, and how people read or watch it. The effect has been to sever the public’s trust in the media, stoke political divisions, and sow dysfunction in democratic societies—all while enriching Facebook itself.

Now Facebook wants to walk away and wash its hands. It announced this week a set of changes to its news feed ranking system that will favor posts from friends and family over those from professional publishers and businesses, while also favoring posts that generate lots of discussion over those that people simply read, watch, or like. This means that all the media companies that have spent the past five years reinventing themselves to reach people on Facebook are about to be out of luck.

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Readership will plunge. Journalists will lose their jobs. Outlets will merge or go out of business. Less news will get covered, and less will get read—in the short term, certainly, and perhaps for some time to come.

That might sound wildly irresponsible of Facebook, and in a way it is. It’s also the right move—one the company is making at some risk to its own business model, for reasons that appear to be at least partly public-spirited. (Facebook’s motivations, by most accounts, actually have less to do with the news or democracy than the news feed’s time-sucking, soul-sapping effect on users.)

It might also sound like a disaster for journalism and for democratic discourse that Facebook is once again moving the goalposts on the media companies that have come to depend on it. But that, it isn’t: This is exactly the shock the media need to get back to the business of serving their readers, rather than pandering to them.

It’s hard to overstate the degree to which Facebook has warped the media’s incentives. News outlets used to write for relatively stable, loyal audiences. They had an incentive to build trust among those readers and to bring them content they found valuable and worthwhile. This model began to crumble on multiple fronts when the media moved online, and Facebook was hardly the only culprit in its downfall. But it dealt a couple of critical blows.

First, by encouraging people to get news from all different sources in the same place, Facebook leveled the playing field among publishers.
That might sound like a good thing, and it did allow new forms of media to flourish—think of BuzzFeed’s listicles. But it also collapsed the distinction between reputable and bogus sources, which had previously been the foundation of the entire business.

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Second, whereas human editors used to be trained to select and emphasize stories based on their news value, Facebook’s news feed algorithm optimized for clicks, views, likes, and shares. News became something that could “go viral,” and publishers that wanted to survive had to produce content that appealed to people’s gut reactions. Headlines and stories that provoked instant outrage, laughter, or solidarity fared far better than those that sought to inform or challenge people’s views. In short, the algorithm promoted sensationalism, tribalism, and partisan pandering.

You can certainly fault the media for playing along. But it was something of a Hobson’s choice: As more and more people turned to Facebook for their news, publishers that declined or failed to play the game saw their readership and relevance diminish.

To what extent Facebook’s disruption of the media facilitated the political upheaval and polarization we’ve seen over the past several years is a question that researchers will be debating and investigating for some time. But it seems clear they’re related. And it was Facebook’s takeover of the news that gave Russian agents the tools to influence elections and civil discourse in democracies around the world.

Now Facebook is turning the tables again—and the companies that relied on its algorithm most heavily will likely be some of the hardest hit.

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The precise effects of the company’s latest changes on news publishers are hard to predict, partly because affecting news publishers isn’t actually Facebook’s goal here. Rather, it’s trying to skew the algorithm back toward personal interaction, informed by research suggesting that passive consumption of Facebook content is leaving people unhappy and unfulfilled. In other words, this isn’t intended to repair the damage Facebook has done to democracy, but to limit the damage it’s doing to its users’ well-being.

News will not disappear from the feed altogether; you’ll still see stories and videos your friends are sharing and talking about. There’s no guarantee that these will be any more credible or worthwhile than the stories Facebook’s algorithm was servicing before. They might even be less so.

Still, the greater effect will be to diminish the role of news on Facebook altogether. Painful as that will be for publishers in the short term, it’s an important step toward dismantling the toxic incentives of the algorithm on journalism.

People aren’t going to stop reading or watching the news just because they see less of it on Facebook. Eventually, they’ll find it elsewhere. Maybe they’ll subscribe to more newsletters, migrate to news apps like Flipboard, Twitter, and Apple News—or just turn on the TV. It seems too optimistic to imagine that they’ll subscribe to a print magazine or newspaper, but stranger things have happened.

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As a result, Facebook may see a dip in user engagement and the amount of time people spend on it. That’s a risk the company is apparently willing to take, having spent the past year soul-searching about its effects on society in the face of intense scrutiny from critics and even Congress.

That doesn’t mean Facebook is acting out of pure altruism here. While its stock slid Friday, there is a long-term business case to be made that Facebook is better off as a true social network then as a massive aggregator of mindless viral time sucks.

Likewise, the news media will ultimately be healthier for breaking its addiction to Facebook referral traffic—even though it’s not going to be easy going cold turkey. More importantly, everyone who reads the news will be better served by a press that isn’t pandering to Facebook users’ biases. And, just to carry this all the way through: Everyone who lives in a democracy will be better off with an electorate that gets its news somewhere—anywhere—other than Facebook.

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