News lobsters demand to be let back into the Facebook boiling pot

We're lost without you, Zuck. Save us!

By Andrew Orlowski


Comment Stand by for more clickbait. Facebook has abandoned its "fix" for news after publishers complained about a drop in traffic.

Last October Facebook added an Explore tab intended to surface more material from friends and family. In six countries, as an experiment, it removed professional publishers from its News Feed alongside the changes.

Clickbait-focused publishers such as Buzzfeed had benefited enormously from being promoted on Facebook – and owed much of their success to lightweight "shareable content". But after the changes, traffic dropped sharply. Facebook rushed to assure publishers it was just a test. It has now formally abandoned the experiment, counting "feel-good news and service content" publisher LittleThings among the casualties.

Facebook has come under fire on various fronts since the 2016 Presidential election, particularly the "News Feed". Originally this was hand-curated by low-paid graduates, but then Facebook was accused of political bias. So it scrapped the humans and replaced them with an algorithm that valued "engagement". This, and the low bar for inclusion, gave significant exposure to inflammatory and bogus material. Before long content farms were cranking it out. Such as these enterprising Macedonian teenagers.

Former senior Facebook exec Antonio Garcia Martinez threw another bomb into Zuck's bunker last week by explaining how viral content was given a premium value.

"Rather than simply reward that ad position to the highest bidder, though, Facebook uses a complex model that considers both the dollar value of each bid as well as how good a piece of clickbait (or view-bait, or comment-bait) the corresponding ad is," Martinez said. "If Facebook's model thinks your ad is 10 times more likely to engage a user than another company's ad, then your effective bid at auction is considered 10 times higher than a company willing to pay the same dollar amount."

In other words there's a kind of viral multiplier, which encourages clickbait-y posts and ads. This should not be news: it's exactly how you would design a social network if your KPI was maximising a user's time on site. You want them to get them addicted.

Martinez also noted that rural targets were cheaper to reach than urbanites, and Trump wanted to reach them, so Facebook ad spending proved to be very good value.

Again, this should not be news: it's practially a tautology that lower-value advertising targets are worth less to advertisers, and those demographics command lower rates.

So Team Trump was playing by Facebook's rules. Trump spent far less as a candidate than his rival, and was especially reluctant to dip into his personal wealth, we learn from Michael Woolf's book on the campaign.

(Although it's worth remembering that not one story in Facebook's "News Feed" gathered more than a million "engagements", with an "engagement" being defined by a click of any kind, such as an upvote.)

The results of Facebook abandoning this particular experiment is that clickbait-hungry publishers will continue to rely on the platform for exposure, rather than building their own brands, and Facebook will rely on clickbait-y free content to keep people on the site. It's a marriage of the desperate.

As one pundit noted: "Any publisher that is dependent on Facebook, or that trusts Facebook, is out of their goddamn mind."

In January Rupert Murdoch called for Facebook to be obliged to pay "a carriage fee" (you or I may call it a licence fee) to transmit content.

"Facebook and Google have popularized scurrilous news sources through algorithms that are profitable for these platforms but inherently unreliable. Recognition of a problem is one step on the pathway to cure, but the remedial measures that both companies have so far proposed are inadequate, commercially, socially and journalistically," said Murdoch. ®

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