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The Facebook Split News Feed Promotes the Lasting Value of Local

February 28th, 2018   ||    by Todd Wasserman

The Facebook split news feed is just one manifestation of Facebook’s recent attempts to root out fake news. Buffeted by attacks that it was complicit in allowing Russia to influence the 2016 presidential elections, Facebook revamped its news feed algorithm in early January. For the past few months, users in Slovakia, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Bolivia, Guatemala, and Serbia have seen a Facebook split news feed that segregates posts from brands and publishers from posts from friends and relatives.

The latest change, which Facebook announced in mid-January, means there will be less content from publishers and brands in the news feed. Instead, “meaningful interactions” will determine the position of content in the feed.

Drowning Out News

Not all news will be drowned out. At the end of January, Facebook made another announcement: Local news—defined as news published in the reader’s geographical area—will gain higher prioritization in the news feed as well.

“People consistently tell us they want to see more local news on Facebook,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote in a post explaining the change. “Local news helps us understand the issues that matter in our communities and affect our lives. Research suggests that reading local news is directly correlated with civic engagement.”

For advertisers, Facebook’s vote of confidence underscores consumers’ heightened trust and appreciation for local news. While the Internet and social media have allowed unscrupulous publishers to traffic in patently fake news, there’s less of a profit in creating fake local news. Local publishers also establish a bond of trust that national outlets can’t create. This combination of existing trust and stronger news feed positioning are a potent combination for local advertising.

What’s Driving Facebook’s Decisions

Since Zuckerberg made his declaration, journalists, techies, and analysts have engaged in a parlor game of guessing his motivations. One theory is that he’s tamping down on fake news to make the service more amenable in China—where the government wouldn’t brook a social network with the power to disrupt its operations. (Facebook is currently banned in China.)

Another theory is that fake news was the last straw for many users, who are turning their backs on social media and its (possibly) deleterious effects on their mental health, according to Vanity Fair.

Facebook’s approach has varied. The Facebook split news feed, also known as “Explore Feed,” has backfired and produced more fake news in the countries in which it is available, according to The New York Times. In any case, Zuckerberg’s public claim is that Facebook wants to showcase news that is “trustworthy, informative and local.”

The Local Advantage

One reason local news has greater weight in the news feed? There’s implicit trust in local sources. A June 2017 study from Videa found 62 percent of respondents trusted local news more than national news. The respondents said relevance and reliability were the two attributes of local news that engendered such trust.

While local news is more trustworthy, its parochial nature also makes it less of a target for fake news publishers. For instance, The biggest fake news story in the 2016 election was about the Pope endorsing Donald Trump for president, according to CNBC. The name recognition of both parties ensured national interest and a maximum amount of engagement. (The post picked up some 960,000 Facebook engagements.)

Facebook’s latest prioritization of local news also offers local stations a new sales pitch, since such stories will have more currency in the feed. A September 2017 study from Share Rocket, a social media ratings company, found that local news stations could bring in $1.4 billion by monetizing their Facebook audiences, according to Marketing Dive.

With the new algorithm tweak, that figure’s apt to be a lot higher—especially if Facebook is successful in getting local news to replace fake news in the feed.

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