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Facebook Tests Its Plan to Kill Off Independent Media

Posted by Martin C. Fox on October 25, 2017

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Remember when Facebook first offered to pay “media partners” to create video content for its news feed? A lot sure has changed since then… and that was only six months ago. In a development that’s elicited anger among journalists and various content providers, the world’s largest social media company appears to be testing a new content-distribution model that would move it away from an organic, free-for-all to a pay-to-play environment. Predictably, news of the tests prompted howls of rage from the media establishment, which depends on Facebook’s referral traffic for survival.

As Mashable reports, a Slovakian journalist pointed out that Facebook has quietly started removing posts from its users’ primary newsfeeds and relegating them to a new secondary feed called “Explore” that Facebook debuted last week. Facebook is still only testing this strategy in a handful of markets. But as Recode points out, the Explore Feed’s purpose is to show users posts from people or publishers they don’t follow, in hopes that they’ll find new stuff they wouldn’t otherwise see. In some countries, though, the social giant is also testing putting all publisher content in this secondary feed, even if you do follow those publishers.

The new strategy would create what Mashable described as “battlefield of pay to play where publishers have to pony up the dough to get back into the News Feed.”

Meanwhile, Facebook says it’s goal is to separate personal updates from family and friends from news stories that are widely disseminated on its app. Here’s a statement from the company, courtesy of Recode:

“With all of the possible stories in each person’s feed, we always work to connect people with the posts they find most meaningful. People have told us they want an easier way to see posts from friends and family, so we are testing two separate feeds, one as a dedicated space with posts from friends and family and another as a dedicated space for posts from Pages. To understand if people like these two different spaces, we will test a few things, such as how people engage with videos and other types of posts. These tests will start in Sri Lanka, Bolivia, Slovakia, Serbia, Guatemala, and Cambodia. We have no current plans to roll this out globally.”

However, the notion that media organizations – many of which are struggling to survive now that Facebook has siphoned off the advertising business on which they used to depend – might soon need to pay to promote their stories would create a “nightmare scenario” for legitimate publishers, while also undercutting the company’s mission to crack down on “fake news” on its platform.

For now, the setting is only available in Slovakia, Sri Lanka, Serbia, Bolivia, Guatemala, and Cambodia, according to the Slovakian journalist who first pointed out the shift.

While Facebook claims it doesn’t plan to roll this out globally right now, the fact that Zuckerberg is even testing this should be terrifying for publishers who are heavily reliant on the newsfeed for distribution. As Recode explains, the new Explore Feed is not easy to find.It’s buried on the lefthand rail on Facebook’s web version, or in the “Explore” tab on the iOS app.

Placing this type of invisible barrier between users and content would create a huge problem for media companies. In Slovakia, for example, where this new test is under way, a journalist wrote on Medium over the weekend that organic reach for publishers fell by “two-thirds” after Facebook moved Page posts to the Explore Feed.

Biggest drop in organic reach we’ve ever seen. Pages have 4 times less interactions, reach fell by two-thirds 

Biggest drop in Facebook organic reach we have ever seen

Facebook is testing radically different Explore Feed in six countries than in the rest of the world.

In an era when two-thirds of Americans say they get some or all of their news from social media, the mere thought of paying for placement fills publishers with margin-crushing dread. And as Recode points out, Facebook has a long history of changing the rules on a whim, leaving publishers scrambling to keep up.

Or, as one Twitter user put it…

Living off organic Facebook reach?
You’re in for a tough time
That free party is over.
News Feed in 2018 will be for paying guests only.


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