Media industry braces for Facebook changes

New changes to the Facebook news feed algorithm have set off new uncertainty and speculation in the media, where outlets have come to rely on the site for traffic.

Facebook announced on Thursday that it would start prioritizing posts from users’ friends and family over content from news sites and other brands.

Facebook CEO Mark ZuckerbergMark Elliot ZuckerbergHillicon Valley: Officials pressed on Russian interference at security forum | FCC accuses Sinclair of deception | Microsoft reveals Russia tried to hack three 2018 candidates | Trump backs Google in fight with EU | Comcast gives up on Fox bid Facebook's Zuckerberg congratulated Trump after 2016 election: report Facebook to start removing misleading posts that incite violence MORE said in the post announcing the change that the new changes are intended to make Facebook’s user experience “more valuable.”

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A move to downplay the spread of media content on Facebook could also be a response to criticisms that Facebook has allowed “fake news” to spread on the platform. But the move is also raising questions about the impact it will have on businesses that dependon the network to reach an audience.

David Chavern, the head of the News Media Alliance, a trade group representing outlets across the country, said that Facebook does little outreach to the media despite having huge amounts of influence over news outlets’ traffic.

“Everyone expected the internet to be a place where everybody gets a voice, that's super democratic, but it turns out that the underlying dynamics of the internet is that there are a few huge gatekeepers, Facebook being one of them,” Chavern told The Hill.

Chavern added that many companies rely on the site to generate traffic and “Facebook gets to decide whether they live or die.”

Facebook did not respond to a request for comment.

Adam Mosseri, the head of Facebook’s News Feed division, acknowledged in a separate blog post that the changes could have adverse affects on media outlets.

“As we make these updates, Pages may see their reach, video watch time and referral traffic decrease,” Mosseri wrote. “The impact will vary from Page to Page, driven by factors including the type of content they produce and how people interact with it. Pages making posts that people generally don’t react to or comment on could see the biggest decreases in distribution.”

Campbell Brown, a former CNN anchor who Facebook hired last year to serve as a media industry liaison, told a group of publishers on Facebook that the move will force companies to focus on posting content that will “inspire meaningful interactions.”

According to Facebook’s announcement, the company will give priority to posts that it predicts will drive more engagement through shares and comments, and that less content from company pages will show up at the top of users’ feeds.

But digital media outlets still have plenty of questions. For one thing, it’s still not clear what this change will actually mean.

“Any time something like this gets announced this quickly without much input from publishers that has such a significant impact on publishers' business is concerning,” Jason Kint, the CEO of Digital Content Next, told The Hill. “We just don't know enough about how it's going to affect them.”

The promise to focus more on content from people Facebook users actually know isn’t new. In June 2016, the social giant made a similar announcement, promising to elevate posts from “friends and family” to the top of users’ feeds over branded content.

Last year, Facebook announced that it would be testing separate feeds for “personal and public content” — a move that also led to an outcry from the media industry that prompted Facebook to clarify that it had no plans to roll the feature out broadly. Facebook said that the latest move is different from last year’s tests.

And the platform regularly makes unannounced tweaks to its algorithms that cause fluctuations in traffic to media outlets, who must adjust their strategies accordingly.

It’s still unclear if the newly announced changes will amount to a bigger shift than changes that the company has made in the past, or whether it will prove to be a symbolic gesture meant to appease critics days before Facebook is scheduled to testify before Congress about extremist content.

“Because the algorithm itself is secret, the description of the changes in it are necessarily pretty vague,” Chavern said. “So you really don't know until it plays out what exactly it all means.”