According to a recent status update by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, corporate media outlets may have finally silenced their competition for good.
On Friday, Zuckerberg detailed a number of changes to Facebook’s news feed, where roughly 44 percent of American adults get their news, according to Pew Research. That same survey found that while Facebook is the preferred source, a full 62 percent of American adults get their news from social media. While it’s been known that Facebook was changing the feed to “prioritize posts from friends and family over posts from publishers and brands” earlier this month, the change wasn’t a death knell for publishers, as Facebook’s algorithm would still allow for online content from media outlets.
However, Zuckerberg’s post on Friday signaled that independent media publishers who depend on their Facebook audience for traffic may soon lose their only means of reaching the public.
“I’ve asked our product teams to make sure we prioritize news that is trustworthy, informative, and local. And we’re starting next week with trusted sources,” Zuckerberg wrote.
“The hard question we’ve struggled with is how to decide what news sources are broadly trusted in a world with so much division. We could try to make that decision ourselves, but that’s not something we’re comfortable with,” Zuckerberg continued in the post. “We considered asking outside experts, which would take the decision out of our hands but would likely not solve the objectivity problem. Or we could ask you — the community — and have your feedback determine the ranking.”
Zuckerberg’s post suggests good intentions in letting the Facebook community decide what news sources qualify as “trusted,” but his way of determining which sources will be seen in the news feed will inevitably benefit corporate outlets over independent publishers, as trustworthiness necessitates name recognition.
“As part of our ongoing quality surveys, we will now ask people whether they’re familiar with a news source and, if so, whether they trust that source. The idea is that some news organizations are only trusted by their readers or watchers, and others are broadly trusted across society even by those who don’t follow them directly,” Zuckerberg wrote.
While Zuckerberg maintains that survey takers who haven’t heard of a given news outlet will be eliminated from the overall sample, it doesn’t change the fact that Facebook is now attempting to “shift the balance of news you see towards sources that are determined to be trusted by the community,” and that part of the “trust” survey is based on name recognition.
It’s important to note that corporate media outlets like CNN, NBC, The Washington Post, BuzzFeed, HuffPost, Bloomberg, The Hill, and other establishment sources have done an exemplary job of holding the Trump administration accountable and continue to publish quality journalism. Their voices are welcomed, but they shouldn’t be the only media companies that Facebook users see in their feed. Other lesser-known but reputable sources like TruthOut, Common Dreams, Counterpunch, Jacobin, In These Times, and many others that aren’t widely recognized could be significantly harmed.
Grit Post’s reporting — by a team with more than 30 years of collective experience in print, broadcast, and online media — has been cited by more than 30 prominent local and national news outlets despite launching roughly six months ago as of this writing. However, because Grit Post is still a young media company and not a household name, we depend on our Facebook audience to like, comment on, and share our content in order to reach a wider audience. The coming changes to the news feed endanger our ability to continue our rapid rate of growth and reach new readers, and could even drive us and other independent publishers out of business, depending on the severity of the changes.
While this may seem like nitpicking to those who don’t work in the digital media industry, it’s important to remember that in 2018, almost two-thirds of people getting news online don’t type in the address of their favorite website to read up on the news of the day — they log into their favorite social media platform, scroll their timeline, and engage with content that interests them.
This means Facebook has the additional responsibility of democratizing their platform to make sure that readers are getting a diverse sample of sources in their news feed. This means not just varying political perspectives, but also varying sizes of readership. A media company with multiple office buildings in different countries and millions of dollars in investment is, by its very nature, less likely to be able to provide an independent perspective on issues not tainted by advertisers’ or funders’ sensibilities. People using Facebook to get their news deserve to read news from publishers not beholden to billionaire donors or corporate owners.
A desire to focus on quality and “trust” is admirable, and hopefully Facebook’s developers will have enough awareness to know that a news source can be trustworthy, even when it isn’t an internationally recognized brand with millions of subscribers. However, if Facebook isn’t careful, publishers like the New York Times — who recently published flattering, uncritical profiles of neo-Nazis and bigoted rightwing pundits — and the Washington Post — who irresponsibly published fake news on multiple occasions without retracting either story — will monopolize Facebook while independent publishers with smaller audiences could go the way of the dinosaurs.