Facebook’s latest move could prove a hammer blow to journalism

The media giant must stop and rethink recent changes that could undermine democracy in large parts of the world.

Online traffic and advertising is increasingly the lifeblood of journalism – meaning slight declines risk taking out independent media. Which is why Facebook’s latest change could actively damage democracy in large parts of the world.

In recent weeks, the media giant has been trialling a new way of presenting news in six countries – namely, taking it off people’s main feed and moving into an ‘explore’ tab.

It sounds like a small shift – but media organisations in countries like Cambodia have noted a collapse in traffic. When you are one of the few independent journalism outlets, that’s potentially disastrous.

Under the new system, news media stories no longer appear in the main “News Feed” – unless they pay to appear there. A nice earner for Facebook, and minimal skin off the back of media giants – but which small, independent outlets could cough up?

Now media freedom campaigners Reporters Without Borders (RSF) have called on Facebook to abandon potential plans to roll it out worldwide. 

The countries chosen are interesting. Slovakia, Serbia, Bolivia, Guatemala, Sri Lanka and Cambodia) have witnessed the change since mid-October.

In most of these countries, Facebook-focused outlets play an essential watchdog role where there are authoritarian regimes. Indeed, journalists not working for media oligarchs often migrate to Facebook. As RSF point out:

In Serbia…independent media have been gagged by President Aleksandar Vučić and the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) since last May’s presidential election.

In Slovakia, the media have had four times fewer interactions (likes, comments, shares) since Facebook launched the Explore Feed, according to Filip Struhárik of the Dennik N news website.

“A company that big also has an enormous responsibility and cannot just do as it pleases,” he wrote on Medium. “What managers [at Facebook] consider a small test can cause serious problems in some countries.”

With much less access to their readers, some media outlets will be condemned to die. Dina Fernández of the Guatemalan news site Soy502 told the Guardian newspaper: “The Facebook explore tab killed 66% of our traffic. Just destroyed it … years of really hard work were just swept away.”

…In Cambodia, Facebook has overtaken television as one of the main sources of news, according to Jenni Reid, the Phnom Penh Post website editor.

For now, Facebook claim it’s only a test. But RSF note it marks a relegation of journalism ‘to Facebook’s cellars’ if rolled out. More than that: “This arrangement reinforces a discriminatory, pay-based distribution of media content that threatens journalism’s ability to survive,” RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said.

The aim of this move is to keep its two billion users on its site for as long as possible. That’s an understandable impulse.

But the company also calls itself a community. And with a global community of that size comes a global responsibility to protecting the wider civic space. An online nation that covers nearly a third of the world population must defend the democratic values that exist within it. That includes protecting independent journalism.

Josiah Mortimer is Editor of Left Foot Forward. Follow him on Twitter

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