Facebook’s failed Explore Feed experiment shows it can’t just drop the politics

For Facebook, extricating itself from the news game once and for all may prove harder than it originally suspected. Having possibly made the calculation that getting involved in news was a bit of a misstep, the company announced earlier in the year that it was taking steps to refocus on friends and family updates, rather than news and advertisers. But the end of an experiment on 1% of the world’s population suggests that stepping away will be easier said than done.

Back in October, Facebook made a massive change to users’ feeds. If you didn’t notice, the chances are you don’t live in Sri Lanka, Guatemala, Bolivia, Cambodia, Serbia or Slovakia where things shifted. For the past five months, these countries have had two news feeds: their main one, dedicated to friends and family (as well as brands paying to be seen as such) and a second one called “Explore” where everything else lived. News sites, brands, followed pages and everything in between was essentially relegated to this subsection that few people bothered to explore.

The results were swift, with news sites reporting that two-thirds of their traffic died overnight. And while Facebook might have considered the countries involved an inoffensive test bed for a controversial change, it turns out even extricating itself from news can be a political act. “My explore feed looks quite normal, but a few people told me that they see distinct content here – old jokes, alt-right pages, posts by non-standard politicians,” Slovakian journalist Filip Struhárik told The Guardian. “We have regional elections in two weeks, and a lot of members of the fascist party are candidates, so it’s not a good time to hide posts of serious news and show people a strange cocktail of random popular posts.”facebook_hits_2_billion_users_as_it_grapples_with_what_its_become

It was a similar case in Guatemala, with broadcast journalist Otto Angel adding: “Independent media in my country is vital to building a new democracy and fighting corruption. Right now, we use Facebook Live to broadcast judicial hearings in corruption cases. With this ‘catastrophe’, we lose around 57% of clicks a day.”

Facebook has now given up on the experiment. In a post on the Facebook newsroom, head of news feed, Adam Mosseri wrote that Facebook’s increase of friends and family “better address the feedback we heard from people”.

“We also received feedback that we made it harder for people in the test countries to access important information, and that we didn’t communicate the test clearly. We’re acting on this feedback by updating the way we evaluate where to test new products, and how we communicate about them.”

Belatedly, then, it seems Facebook has taken the advice of journalists like Struhárik – albeit not in time for to be a part of the Slovakian elections. Having got involved with news and politics, Facebook is faced with a difficult problem: it clearly has an impact on how people vote, and that gives it a massive regulation and reputational headache. But at the same time, it can’t put the news genie back in the bottle without being accused of neglecting its democratic duties.

How Zuckerberg must long for the days when Facebook was just a social network. This experiment proves it can’t ‘cut and run’, but it wouldn’t be surprising if the company pivoted to a ‘cut and slowly sidle away’ approach instead.

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