Why news organisations’ deal with Facebook could be a serious mistake

‘We’re not trying to go, like, suck in and devour everything’. This was Facebook’s Chief Product Officer, Chris Cox, offering small comfort to news organisations about the deal Facebook has just struck, giving the social networking platform direct access to the publishers’ content (‘Facebook Begins Testing Direct Publication of News Articles’ New York Times, 13/04/15). As comfort goes, it’s not exactly ‘don’t be evil’.

As of today — Wednesday — Facebook will begin publishing news directly in its news feed, even though that news has been produced by news publishers themselves. Publishers, the NY Times included, have agreed to let Facebook do this in the hope that it will increase their visibility and traffic in the increasingly important Facebook news feed. The NY Times has reported that traffic from Facebook has doubled in recent months to 14–16% and for some news sites it is considerably higher (ibid).

One can see why news publishers would want to do this. For many people Facebook is their default destination. This is even more the case on mobile as it is on desktop. These people find it far more convenient to view news within their news feed rather than clicking out to another site.

Facebook has, reportedly, spent months coaxing some of the most prestigious news organisations in the world into the deal. It has offered to let the news organisations sell their own ads on their content, and use their own tools to track usage (in other words more information than Facebook currently gives to them).

Despite these benefits, and the increased visibility, this could be a serious mistake for news publishers in the long term. News publishers not only stand to lose what little online brand association their content still retains, but could also lose a large degree of control over editorial, engagement, agenda, and usage data.

Brand

News content will, of course, still be branded by publisher, but will be mixed together with all other content in the user’s Facebook newsfeed. Over time these users will associate the content less and less with the original publisher and more with Facebook and the recommendations of their friends.

Editorial control

Facebook will necessarily provide ‘technical guidelines’ to publishers for uploading content (e.g. video must be uploaded in particular formats and must be less than one minute in duration). These ‘technical guidelines’ will have editorial implications, though publishers will have little to no control over them (and Facebook will tell publishers that tech guidelines have to be Facebook controlled to ensure maximum access for its users).

Technical guidelines can be altered by Facebook at any time, with significant knock on effects (particularly regarding cost) for publishers.

Technical guidelines may be used as a justification for altering the format of news content, without the publisher’s knowledge or permission.

Facebook may censor certain content from a publisher to a user based on Facebook criteria (that could remain opaque).

Engagement

Facebook will have control over the ability of users to re-distribute and re-use publisher’s content.

Facebook will oversee the tools by which people judge news content (e.g. like/don’t like, important/not important, biased/impartial etc).

Facebook users will comment about, and engage with, news articles within Facebook. The publishers will participate in this engagement, though Facebook will doubtless want to retain the content itself and oversee the engagement process.

Facebook chooses whether or not to impose penalties on a user for transgressions of its in-house rules, penalties that may affect users’ ability to consume and engage with news content.

Agenda

Facebook decides (via its algorithm) which Facebook users get to see which publisher’s content (& filters a publisher’s articles out of a users news stream as it chooses) based on criteria it defines (and presumably — as now — keeps opaque).

Access to usage data

Facebook collects rich data about how Facebook users view, respond, re-distribute and re-use the content of publishers. Publishers will gain access to some, but not all of this data (e.g. Facebook will know how users consume and engage with news content from different publishers and can cross correlate types of user with types of news content).

Facebook collects rich data about how Facebook users view, respond, re-distribute and re-use the content of publishers, and chooses when to pass it on and in what format.

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It would be difficult to mitigate against many of these risks since they require Facebook to make commitments about its future behaviour that it might justifiably say restrict its ability to provide the best service to its users.

Even if Facebook bends over backwards to try to assuage news publishers’ concerns, the publishers will remain suspicious about the visibility of their content in the news feed unless there is greater transparency about the algorithm (which is not going to happen).

We already know (from a talk that Facebook’s UK Policy Director, Simon Milner, gave at the Oxford Media Convention) that Facebook filters content published by organisations. How and on what basis would it do this once the news content was on Facebook?

The upside to Facebook in this deal is clear. As is the short term upside to news organisations in terms of eyeballs and traffic. Yet in the longer term news organisations stand they lose brand association, editorial control, user engagement, prioritization of the agenda, and rich data. Nor should it be much comfort to publishers that Facebook are ‘not trying to go, like, suck in and devour everything’.

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