Facebook’s news feed: Fewer friends, more AI

Note: This was originally published as the daily newsletter for the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer.

Last week, Meta, the parent company of Facebook, reported its quarterly financial results, and said that while the number of Facebook users increased during that period, the company’s revenues grew at the slowest rate since Facebook first went public a decade ago. This news came on the heels of a similarly gloomy financial report in February, when Meta said that its profit shrank, and also announced that its user base fell for the first time since Facebook went public in 2012. After this report was released, the company’s share price plummeted, reducing Meta’s market value by almost $240 billion, the largest one-day decline in US history. The stock has recovered since then, but is still about 35 percent lower than it was in January.

In his remarks about Meta’s most recent results, Mark Zuckerberg, the company’s CEO, tried to reassure investors and analysts that the social network still has a rosy future. He pointed to several things Meta plans to change, including a reduction in costs to help defray the company’s investment in the metaverse, since the unit devoted to those projects lost nearly $4 billion in the most recent quarter. Zuckerberg also talked about how the company plans to change the news feed at both Facebook and Instagram in order to compete with TikTok, the Chinese-owned video-sharing platform that has grown at a rapid pace over the past few years (Facebook has also reportedly hired a PR firm to spread negative news stories about TikTok).

Many industry analysts believe TikTok has become a significant competitive threat to Facebook’s dominance. Meta has been “focused on its far-off vision for virtual existence [and] has been caught unprepared by the growing popularity of short-form video,” Tae Kim wrote at Bloomberg in February, after Meta’s stock fell. Instagram has its own short-form video feature, called Reels, which the company has been pushing as an alternative to TikTok, but while Instagram’s version is growing quickly, it doesn’t seem to have made much of an impact on the Chinese company’s growth. TikTok hit the four-billion-user mark last year, a goal it reached almost twice as fast as Facebook, and its advertising revenue is expected to surpass both Snapchat and Twitter by 2024. Analysts believe that the app’s recommendation algorithm is the key to its success.

In a Facebook post, Zuckerberg said the company’s main competitive response to TikTok will be to change the way the Facebook and Instagram news feeds function. What he described didn’t seem to get much notice at the time, but it has potentially significant implications for the way information—and disinformation—flows through these social networks. The change, Zuckerberg wrote, will be to move the news feeds for those services “from being almost exclusively curated by your social graph or follow graph to now having more of your feed recommended by AI, even if the content wasn’t posted by a friend or someone you follow.” Casey Newton wrote in his Platformer newsletter that this marks “a major shift in philosophy for Meta.”

In the past, the news feed was primarily designed to show users content posted by friends. Facebook’s recommendation algorithm chose which posts to display, but the source was always something a friend shared, liked, or commented on. Now, Zuckerberg said that the feed will potentially include anything that anyone has shared anywhere on Facebook or Instagram, regardless of whether a user is connected to them. “I think about the AI we’re building not just as a recommendation system for short-form video, but as a Discovery Engine that can show you all of the most interesting content that people have shared across our systems,” Zuckerberg wrote. Ben Thompson, a technology analyst, wrote that the change means “abandoning the social graph as the core organizing feature” of the Facebook and Instagram news feeds.

The implications of this shift could be profound. “In a world where the contents of your feed are determined by your friends and family, it’s natural to assume that war will be the primary topic of discussion,” Newton writes. “But a world where the feed is powered by a ‘discovery engine’ might look very different.” As the company tries to compete with TikTok, he argues, Facebook and Instagram may steer away from conflict, and toward more videos about cats or dancing. To the extent that they do involve conflict, they could steer towards disinformation even more than they do already: TikTok, which is run by the kind of recommendation algorithm Zuckerberg seems to want to emulate, has been filled with disinformation about the war in Ukraine, experts say.

If a recommendation engine prioritizes engagement, disinformation almost always outperforms truthful information, since fake news doesn’t have to conform to reality. “News Feed optimizes for engagement,” Bobby Goodlatte, a former Facebook news feed designer, said after Trump was elected, “and bullshit is highly engaging.” Newton mentioned another risk for traditional news outlets if Facebook makes these changes: news could fall even lower on the company’s priority list than it is already. Articles that appear in the dedicated News tab may be selected at least in part by humans, but the news feed will be controlled by Facebook’s AI, which is prioritizing any kind of content that gets shared a lot. News publishers “may be about to walk into a buzzsaw labeled ‘discovery engine’ [and] the transition could be ugly,” Newton writes.

Here’s more on Meta:

Black box: A group of researchers argue in an op-ed for Scientific American magazine that it’s time to “open the black box of social media,” and get technology companies to provide data to independent researchers. The authors of the op-ed include Renée DiResta, research manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory; Laura Edelson, a researcher at New York University, whose work was shut down by Facebook; Brendan Nyhan, a professor of government at Dartmouth College; and Ethan Zuckerman, a professor of public policy, information and communication at the University of Massachusetts.

Facebook Papers: Gizmodo has released more documents from the “Facebook Papers,” a large collection of documents that were provided to Congress and a number of media outlets last year by Frances Haugen, a former Facebook staffer turned whistleblower. “As part of a rolling effort to make the Facebook Papers available publicly, Gizmodo is releasing a second batch of documents—37 files in all,” the site wrote. “In our first drop, we shared 28 files related to the 2020 election and the Jan 6. attack on the U.S. Capitol.” Gizmodo said it has partnered with a group of independent experts to review, redact, and publish the documents to ensure the content is not harmful.

Meta pixel: The Markup, which writes data-driven articles about the platforms, describes how it created the “Meta Pixel” project, in which volunteers allow The Markup to track when and where they are tracked by Meta. The name of the project comes from a pixel that is hidden in the code of millions of websites and tracked by Meta, so that the company knows where web users spend their time, what they click on, and what they are shopping for, in order to show them ads. The Markup says it is “the first large-scale crowdsourced study of the presence of the Meta Pixel and the data it collects in real-world scenarios.”

Black hole: Vice reported recently that Facebook “has no idea where all of its user data goes, or what it’s doing with it,” according to a leaked internal document obtained by the site. Engineers inside the company used this analogy: “Imagine you hold a bottle of ink in your hand. This bottle of ink is a mixture of all kinds of user data (3PD, 1PD, SCD, Europe, etc.) You pour that ink into a lake of water (our open data systems; our open culture) … and it flows … everywhere,” the document read. “How do you put that ink back in the bottle?”

Other notable stories:

Associated Press has published an in-depth look at the Russian bombing of a theater in Mariupol, Ukraine. The wire service says that based on what is known about the women and children sheltering inside the theater, as many as 600 civilians may have died in the bombing, or about twice the official estimate of fatalities. “AP journalists arrived at a much higher number through the reconstruction of a 3D model of the building’s floorplan reviewed repeatedly by direct witnesses, most from within the theater, who described in detail where people were sheltering,” the service reported. AP wrote separately about the methodology it used to arrive at the estimate.

Rana Ayyub, an Indian journalist and opinion columnist for the Washington Post, writes in The Economist that we should stop calling journalists “brave” because this kind of praise, however well intentioned, could normalise their persecution. “To label us brave is to fight your battles from our shoulders,” she writes. “When a journalist is killed or incarcerated or assassinated, obituaries scream bravado, editorials claim courage. Have such plaudits normalised the persecution of journalists? Why does a journalist have to be brave to report facts as they are? Why does she need to be persecuted for her story to reach the world?”

Courtney Radsch, a senior fellow at the Center for International Governance Innovation, writes about one of the potential benefits of Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter — the open sourcing of the recommendation algorithm. “Making Twitter’s algorithmic secret sauce public could serve the public interest in several ways,” she argues. “For one thing, researchers would be able to analyze the algorithmic dimensions of information operations and harassment while exploring how different design choices and data interact with these algorithms. Twitter is already one of the world’s most studied platforms because it has an open API, in contrast with Facebook.”

Feven Merid writes for CJR about how reporting on the violence in Haiti has led to the deaths of more than half a dozen journalists in the past three years alone. She describes how a confluence of events in th country has left “a degraded press covering an even more degraded government. Few protections exist for journalists outside of media associations that can help provide legal assistance or advocacy. The country itself is experiencing a dearth of essential public services. “It’s the kind of situation where almost nothing is functioning,” said Monique Clesca, a former journalist and UN official, who is now a member of the Commission to Search for a Haitian Solution to the Crisis.”

SafeGraph, a location data broker, has stopped offering data related to Planned Parenthood and other similar family planning centers after Vice found it was possible to buy information on how many people were visiting the facilities, where they came from, and where they went afterwards. Some experts have said they were concerned that this kind of information could be used to harass or attack women in the wake of the Supreme Court’s plan to repeal Roe v. Wade. “In light of potential federal changes in family planning access, we’re removing Patterns data for locations classified as Family Planning Centers from our self-serve ‘shop’ and API to curtail any potential misuse of its data,” Auren Hoffman, SafeGraph’s CEO, wrote on the company’s blog.

The New York Times said it added 387,000 digital subscribers in the most recent quarter, and now has a total of 9.1 million subscribers, including those it added when it acquired The Athletic in February for $550 million. But while the increase gets the paper closer to its goal of 15 million subscribers by the end of 2027, The Athletic is also eating into the company’s profits: the site has lost $6.8 million since the acquisition. The Times also announced that part of the jump in subscribers it saw came from the acquisition of Wordle, the popular word game the paper bought earlier this year.

The BBC hired a research company to deprive 80 UK households of BBC content for nine days, to show how indispensable the network is, the Nieman Journalism Lab writes. “At the end of the nine days — after initial interviews, keeping media diaries, and giving real-time updates to researchers via WhatsApp — households were instructed to open an envelope during a final interview. Inside was the prorated cost of the license fee for the nine days” Out of the 60 households that wanted to pay nothing or pay less, 70 percent changed their minds and said they would be willing to pay the full license fee or more.

Report for the World announced open applications for local newsroom partners anywhere in the world. The program, which is run by the nonprofit GroundTruth Project, currently supports 15 local reporters in six newsrooms across Brazil, India, and Nigeria. It says it is now accepting applications from prospective host newsrooms in an open call that will expand the program’s support to up to 30 total reporters globally by the end of this year.

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