Time well spent: what’s behind changes to Facebook’s newsfeed?


Mark Zuckerberg wants you to be happy. This month the social media mogul announced changes to the way that Facebook’s two billion active users experience the platform. Ostensibly the moves are to make sure “the time we all spend on Facebook is time well spent.”

According to the Pew Research Centre, some 45 percent of all Americans get their news from Facebook. Yet Zuckerberg’s reforms could impact that figure dramatically. In the first phase of the changes, already visible, the algorithmic tweaks will prioritise content that attracts ‘meaningful interactions’, making, comments–especially long ones–a currency valued higher than ‘likes’ and shares. Zuckerberg also announced that overall ‘news’ will fall as a proportion of content on users’ timelines from five to four per cent (what Facebook thinks news is, exactly, isn’t specified).

More opaque is the announcement that Facebook is seeking to promote trusted sources. Rather than engage in direct regulation, Zuckerberg intends to crowdsource a metric of trust by means of a randomly assigned two question survey meant to identify those publishers that are recognised and trusted by the broadest audience (that is, beyond any source’s hardcore fans). The obvious problem here is that more users will recognise Fox News and the BBC than the Canary or the New Statesman, yet that doesn’t necessarily mean that they trust the former.

In industry groups, Facebook’s head of newsfeed Adam Mosseri has been on hand to reassure smaller publishers that, in effect, these changes won’t matter since “for smaller publications we won't have data one way or the other, so we don't act.” Given the limits of this method, one gets the feeling that Facebook’s response to ‘fake news’ may largely be centred on limiting the amount of ‘news’ in general.

Either way, activist publishers are right to be concerned. In the general election last year, Momentum’s video content far outstripped all other political parties, including Labour. Taken as a whole, Momentum's videos were seen by a third of all adult Facebook users in the UK, a popularity that was almost entirely organic. Given that sponsored posts will continue to operate within a different ‘ecosystem’, Facebook’s advertising revenue stands only to gain from these changes, while people powered content will suffer.

“It’s both paternalistic and sinister” Steve Walker, the man behind Sqwawkbox, told me. “The reasons they're doing it seem clear enough … The establishment got a big shock in this country during the general election because of the power of independent and social media – and now they want to neutralise the threat.”

Are the changes a plot meant to undermine the sources of populism, both left and right? Possibly. Zuckerberg’s stated concern is to limit political polarization and Facebook has come under mounting pressure to act on evidence appearing to show use of the platform by foreign agents intent on undermining Western stability.

Yet despite shouldering the burden of populism, data showing a fall in time spent by users on Facebook may also be occupying Zuckerberg’s thoughts. Despite the reforms being couched in benevolent language, one basic threat to the existence of the platform (and the fate of its share price) is whether users grow sick of it. Indeed, where would Facebook be if humanity outgrew its relative infancy with social media and started to demand more from our experience at the frontier of interconnectedness than endless memes, adverts and cats? Or where would it be if we simply became bored?

Zuckerberg’s announcement nods towards–if not fully acknowledging–research showing negative links between social media and wellbeing. Using Facebook with those we care about can make us feel “more connected and less lonely” claims Zuckerberg, while “on the other hand, passively reading articles or watching videos – even if they're entertaining or informative – may not be as good.”

Less passive consumption of media may well be a virtue, yet Zuckerberg’s statement of good intent fails to mention Facebook Watch, a video on demand service rolled out in the US last year with a reported billion dollar’s worth of investment.

But what is the fourth richest man in America and boss of the world’s biggest public sphere to do? Some, including those fighters for freedom in Silicon Valley, have called for more direct forms control. Yet given the scale of the task (one billion pieces of content are posted on Facebook each day), it’s hard to imagine how such hard regulation would work without either causing mass exodus from the platform or else combined by measures to radically constrain the internet, as in China.

Putting Zuckerberg’s goodwill and the likelihood of political conspiracy to one side, perhaps the clearest explanation of what’s motivating these changes is simply economic. For all the talk of “meaningful connections” and wellbeing, it’s more than likely that Facebook just doesn’t care.

The day after Zuckerberg’s first announcement Facebook’s share price fell by 4.5 percent, yet it quickly rebounded and has since resumed its seemingly endless climb that has seen the company become the sixth most valuable in the world, posting $27bn in advertising revenue for 2016 alone. Such success begs the question as to whether even the greatest minds and most intrepid spirits in Silicon Valley really have the freedom to settle a debate going back at least as far as Plato – who should control access to information?

If market dominance is fundamentally the driving force, the exact mechanics are unclear. Asked by an NBC journalist whether Facebook might provide greater transparency into exactly how the platform controls the way two billion people see and exchange information, Mosseri said "we want to be as transparent as possible, but we don’t want to distract.” The message from the top seems to be not to let political concerns get in the way of time well spent.

Lewis Bassett is a PhD student at the University of Manchester and works for the Labour MP Chris Williamson.