“Facebook has not been a healthy place for political debate, ever,” one publisher says
As Facebook again tweaks its news feed to feature less political content, some publishers have already been positioning their sites to rely less on the platform for traffic. Others are hoping for minimal impact to their traffic as they invest more in Facebook’s other news products.
This latest move by the social giant is a part of its ongoing effort to address the spread of polarizing content and misinformation rampant on the platform — and the issues particularly with breaking news and political coverage. The experiment, which started in February in the U.S., is expanding to additional markets such as Costa Rica, Sweden, Spain and Ireland.
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Douglas Burns, co-owner of Iowa’s two-newspaper Herald Publishing chain, said he’s concerned about losing some traffic from news stories that his papers pushed on Facebook — but welcomes the lower toxicity level on his Facebook channel in recent months. Even before Facebook announced its plans, Burns said his publications have used Twitter to amplify their political coverage in the past six months. “Facebook has not been a healthy place for political debate, ever,” Burns told TheWrap. “The algorithm would feed (people’s) worst impulses.”
One of his concerns around political issues on Facebook is the offline wars and violence that could result from the spread of controversial or polarizing content. Especially during the 2016 presidential election, Herald Publishing’s Facebook feed became “political car wrecks” for several years, Burns added. In their Iowa coverage area, communities are tight-knit. “Your trolls are your neighbors. People you see in the grocery store or went to high school with,” Burns said. “We just wanted to get away from the zero-sum Republican Democrat debate.”
Burns’ Carroll Times Herald generally promotes more features and local stories on its Facebook page, while using Twitter to push more political news. So far, Burns said his audience likes the community-focused content — and it helps his papers earn the trust of readers in the area and build their local brands.
In 2018, when Facebook last changed its algorithm, reports showed some publishers saw their referral traffic from news content dip by as much as one third. On average, analytics platform Parse.ly found that publishers experienced a 28% overall decrease in traffic from 2017, as a result of Facebook’s move to de-emphasize brand and publisher pages in the news feed.
Digital publisher Axios, which launched in Virginia in 2016, publishes 23 newsletters covering national topics, with 11 of those focusing on local markets from Des Moines, Iowa, to Charlotte, North Carolina. Neal Rothschild, director of audience and growth at Axios, estimates about 30% of its coverage is political news across newsletters and online verticals. In 2018, Axios saw its Facebook numbers decline, but they eventually recovered and increased after a few months. “It helped that we were a young and newly growing company,” Rothschild said. “We noticed (the decline), but it was not keeping us up at night.”
With this latest change, Axios believes it is in a strong position to combat any potential drop in traffic. Recently, the platform became a partner on Facebook’s News Tab, a dedicated news section that pays select publishers for content. That traffic has been increasing significantly in the past few months for Axios’ channels, as Facebook has gradually expanded the product to more users and made it available on desktop versions. If the upcoming changes to political content were to affect Axios, Rothschild expects the news tab growth would offset any loss in traffic.
“We’re actually not too pessimistic about what this could mean,” Rothschild said. “None of those changes affected us to a great degree. We’re kind of accustomed to bracing for these changes. Our Facebook growth has generally been pretty slow and steady.”
Facebook’s influence in the social media world isn’t what it was a decade ago, and the landscape has changed a lot in these last few years. Although it still maintains some 2 billion daily active users, upstart platforms like TikTok and Snap have attracted many younger users and emerging creators. Axios, for instance, sees Facebook as effective for driving volume on social media, but Twitter is more effective for reaching influential users. And compared to Facebook, user engagement is actually better on Google, Rothschild noted.
Influencers and emerging talent are also increasingly turning to platforms like YouTube, TikTok or Instagram (owned by Facebook) for monetizing their content. Many contend that Facebook isn’t as attractive to the next generation of content creators.
“Facebook as a social platform has plateaued,” said Matt Zuvella, VP of marketing of influencer management firm FamePick. “Influencers have focused on Instagram for the last three-plus years, and now more recently TikTok as their main platform to build their audience.”
Publishers still relying heavily on Facebook are inevitably at the mercy of the tech giant’s actions. For Axios, popular for its online newsletters and growing podcast, the strategy is to avoid the “web traffic game,” Rothschild said. Just relying on clicks and counting on major platforms to build an audience won’t work in the long run. “We don’t want to rely on (Facebook),” Rothschild said. “A lot of publishers have gotten burned in the last decade by adapting themselves to the changes of the platforms. We don’t want to build ourselves to be dependent on it. We don’t want to be in a position where we have to recover if they change in a big way.”
So far, Facebook said it is seeing positive results backing up its claim that users want to see less political content in their news feed. In coming months, the company has promised a “gradual and methodical” rollout so as to soften the impact on publishers. (A rep for the company declined to comment for this story.)
For Burns, there may also be an upside to this news feed change. If it means his local stories will get elevated, he said, which could get his readers to focus on issues and topics in the community. “It will make everyone’s news feeds a kinder and gentler place. If that’s the case that’s a small price to pay (in traffic),” Burns said.
One thing publishers don’t have clarification on is what Facebook actually considers “political.” The company stated that political topics make up just 6% of the overall content people engage with in the U.S., but has offered no definition of the term. These days, publishers agree that topics such as COVID-19 or sports have become political coverage.
“Obviously, COVID is a very political issue,” Rothschild said. “We figure that’s how they do it on Facebook too.”