• Katrine Lyngsø

How six major journalism pages on Facebook reacted to its notorious 2018 pivot away from news

Updated: Dec 21, 2021

In early 2018, Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook would show more content from friends and family rather than posts from pages. The move sent shock waves through many news organisations and publishers highly dependent on the social networking service as a distribution platform.

The change meant that the notorious News Feed algorithm would focus on generating “more opportunities” for users to interact with the people that they care about. The actual mechanics of Facebook’s often-changing algorithm are not publicly known.

However, the company itself calls it the mechanics which prioritises what content appears in users’ news feeds “by predicting what they’re most likely to be interested in or engage with”.

The 2018 algorithm change, and the subsequent pivot away from news, came following the 2016 US election, in which Facebook came under massive scrutiny for being an active distributor of miss- and disinformation.

However, such an algorithm change was not new to the publishers, as the tech giant often modifies and tweaks its ranking system to help further grow its $84 billion yearly advertisement revenue. But the alteration in January 2018 was by far the most drastic.

Facebook warned that this would very likely hurt pages highly reliant on the platform. As cautioned, many reports emerged of significant declines in engagement metrics and audience traffic among smaller and digital-native news organisations after the alteration. The digital-born news site, BuzzFeed, for example, reported a 13 per cent loss of audience traffic between January and June 2018, compared to the six previous months.

Even more tragically, the social publisher LittleThings announced that the algorithm tweak had caused it to go bankrupt despite its millions of Facebook followers.

"Our organic traffic, and influencer traffic were cut by over 75 per cent. No previous algorithm update ever came close to this level of decimation. The position it put us in was beyond dire," LittleThings said.

Concern has increasingly been growing over Facebook's influence on news content and its distribution, and the 2018 algorithm change showed just how vulnerable smaller publishers are to Facebook’s policies.

But how did the tweak affect well-established, traditional media that use Facebook as a complementary distribution platform?

This article looks at how the six most-followed news organisations on Facebook’s engagement was impacted by the algorithm update. BBC News, CNN, ABP, FOX News, the Daily Mail and Time were included in the analysis. Although they all have solid loyal audiences and are popular beyond their social media sites, the six organisations are also avid publishers on Facebook with a total of 1536 million posts across their pages in the time period of analysis between 01/01/2017 and 11/23/2021

With engagement data scraped from the social media monitoring platform, Crowdtangle, it is clear that the six publishers’ integration rate was seeing a decline long before the algorithm was publicly announced changed.

The interaction rate gives a proportional idea of the accounts audience engagement success as it is calculated by dividing the number of a post’s interactions (reactions, comments and shares) by its account’s size at the time of posting.

The average engagement rate on Facebook is 0.25% meaning that the outlets on average pipped just above and below average a year after the announcement. But Although an initial decrease can be observed right after the tweak, it’s also evident that the six news organisations quite quickly bounced back around March 2018.

Furthermore, the interaction rate proves to be quite unstable and fluctuating, which may indicate that external events are more likely to impact how social media audiences interact with news content, as for example, in the initial phase of the pandemic-induced lockdowns in March 2020.

A similar picture of instability and fluctuation emerges when looking at the total number of interactions.

However, when the account size is not taken into perspective, there is a clearer image of a small decline in mid-January that continues until the beginning of 2019 after which the engagement started to steadily increase again. The small decline aligns with Facebook's prediction that it would decrease news content on its News Feed from 5% to 4%.

Interestingly, despite Facebook’s announcement it would deprioritise news, prompting layoffs around newsrooms, the six organisations didn’t get discouraged to post less on the platform. On the contrary, a steady increase is observed over the period, as seen in the graph below.

So, it seems that the six news organisations included in this article may have been a minuscule decline in their engagement but that their pages' content continues to appear on users' feeds.

But Facebook remains an essential tool for the publishers’ distribution of content. In fact, online analytics firm reveals that over 25% of traffic referrals to a pool of over 2500+ digital publishers' own websites came from Facebook. Although a similar number for referrals is not publically available for our six news organisations, it is clear that depending too much on social media platforms like Facebook has its risks, especially as an increasing amount of people take to social networking services for their daily dose of news...