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Facebook’s Algorithm Is Apocalyptic for Brands, Publishers, Users, and Facebook Itself

Whenever Facebook tweaks its algorithm and decreases the reach of news stories, publishers usually treat it like a lover’s quarrel. But according to a Digiday report, Facebook has been sending each publisher the “We need to talk” text, warning them of the most apocalyptic algorithm change yet.

If you think that’s hyperbolic, well… just look at Digiday’s homepage right now.

A handful of publishers contacted by Facebook told Digiday that the social giant plans to “favor content that’s shared by users or otherwise actively engaged with.” That implies content from brands and publishers will be deprioritized.

To be clear, this change isn’t just going to hurt publishers and marketers trying to reach audiences on Facebook. It could be apocalyptic for Facebook.

A Bizarre Bet on Banality

Until this point, Facebook has largely done whatever it took to increase engagement on its platform. But this is an incredibly foolish move by the social giant, a knee-jerk reaction to the fake news controversies of the last year.

Facebook’s reasoning boils down to the fact that news articles get fewer comments and likes than user-generated posts. Of course they do. When you see a news story on Facebook, you click, take a few minutes to read it, and go about your day, instead of going back to the original post on Facebook to leave a comment or like it.

Essentially, Facebook is arguing that reading an article for several minutes is less valuable than taking five seconds to comment “so cute!” on your old college roommate’s baby pictures to be nice. (Even though, let’s be honest, you never really liked Becky.)

Facebook is the biggest news source in the U.S. According to a 2017 Pew research report, nearly half of Americans get their news from Facebook. It’s a huge reason people use Facebook. Take that away, and Facebook becomes less sticky in user’s lives—a worse version of Instagram, where you’re fed pictures from a giant network of people, most of whom you don’t really care about.

This is a bizarre bet on banality. Per Mike Isaac of The New York Times, Facebook hopes minimizing content that could upset people will result in a better experience, even if it causes users to spend less time on the site. However, that mindset is going to cost Facebook.

Big consequences

As the Times coverage notes, there’s a good chance this change will lead to increased political polarization:

Thursday’s changes raise questions of whether people may end up seeing more content that reinforces their own ideologies if they end up frequently interacting with posts and videos that reflect the similar views of their friends or family. And bogus news may still spread — if a relative or friend posts a link with an inaccurate news article that is widely commented on, that post will be prominently displayed.

With over 2 billion users, Facebook is arguably the most dominant platform on earth. And if this reading of the situation proves to be true, then Facebook will just replace legitimate news sources with crazy uncles posting about Hilary Clinton’s secret child sex ring.

The effects are going to be wide-ranging, but for those in the industry, these three takeaways stand out:

1. Facebook will become less important

I always balked at past predictions of Facebook’s demise, but this will seriously hurt the company. People will spend less time on Facebook, which will make it less important to marketers who pay for content distribution. Start adjusting your strategy accordingly: prioritize owned media and transfer as much of your audience as you can to your email lists. That way, you’ll have a direct line to them.

Trackmaven founder Allen Gannett has another alternative worth considering: Get your audience into groups, where they’ll be more immune to the Facebook algorithm crunch.

2. Facebook ads are going to get more expensive in the short term

Publishers are addicted to Facebook traffic. They still get 35 percent of their traffic from the network, second only to Google. If they can’t get it for free, they’ll pay for it, at least in the short term. When it comes to paid content distribution, Facebook is still the most cost-effective platform on earth.

Facebook referral traffic

3. Consumers will be more polarized and close-minded, yet less informed and empathetic

As Shane Snow and I write in our upcoming book, The Storytelling Edge, great stories release a drug called oxytocin into our brains that makes us more empathetic. Facebook has taken a lot of heat over the years for certain decisions, but the platform has still helped spread inspiring stories from people all over the world via publishers like Upworthy and NowThis. In many cases, those stories made people more empathetic.

Instead, Facebook will now prioritize stories that circulate around our own tribes. Filter bubbles could worsen, which might lead to a significant increase in xenophobia on a global scale. There’s no real upside here, unless you’re evil enough to make an ad like this.

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