Facebook and the news publishers who flirt with heartbreak

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News without trust is rumour, bullshit and gossip. So, we've come to a pretty pass when publishers like the New York Times and the Washington Post are thinking about getting hitched to that lyin', cheatin', two-timing heart, Facebook.

But that is just what's happening.

Facebook is not content that Big Ink just embeds links to its stories in the Facebook newsfeed. The social media giant would now like to bring those news stories in-house and include them right in the Facebook content offering. It's been courting the media players since late last year and the newsrooms are expressing guarded interest. Why? Because the social network has 1.44 billion users. And, about 30 per cent of Americans get their news from Facebook. That's a newsfeed publishers can't ignore, especially when they're hemorrhaging cash the way a touring production of Sweeney Todd goes through fake blood.

Now, most people would trust Lucy van Pelt with a football over Facebook most days. Year after year the social network has promised it won't share our personal information, then shares our personal information. Promises it won't change settings without our permission, then changes our settings behind our backs. Says it cares about our privacy, then sells our data to the highest bidder. Facebook might say it doesn't want a listeria outbreak, but I'd advise against putting it in charge of a meat-packing plant any time soon.

News publishers, of course, know this. And, they know that Facebook has full control over dials and valves that control the mix of content that flows into the Facebook feed. For years the social network has tweaked those controls sometimes in the favour of traditional news, sometimes to goose up the stories your friends like, sometimes to, well, nobody but Facebook really knows.

Back in 2012, for example, Facebook launched the Social Reader, which featured a metric buttload of news notifications pouring into millions of readers' feeds. The Washington Post and The Guardian, among others, thought this was news nirvana. That is, until, Facebook fiddled with the dials and suddenly the Social Reader was sucking air.

And who could forget the heydays of Zynga, the reprehensible meritocracy that brought us Farmville and Texas Hold 'Em Poker. In 2011 the gaming company was Facebook's golden boy, flying high on the Facebook newsfeed. Then the social network caught up with mobile, changed its special deal with Zynga and by 2013 the sketchy gamester was a subsistence farmer, all but cut off from the formerly lucrative cash cow of the Facebook audience.

In that same year Facebook wrote this about its newsfeed:

"We've noticed that people enjoy seeing articles on Facebook, and so we're now paying closer attention to what makes for high quality content, and how often articles are clicked on from News Feed on mobile."

So, good news for publishers.

But, just last week Facebook wrote, about the same feed:

"We've also learned that people are worried about missing important updates from the friends they care about."

So, bad news for publishers who will see their items deprecated relative to posts titled "OMG, look at my mermaid manicure!" or "I'm The Professor! Which Gilligan's Island character are you?"

But despite all that fiddling, Facebook doesn't see itself as doing any editing. In a 2014 interview with the New York Times, Greg Marra, the software engineer behind the Facebook newsfeed algorithm, said:

"We try to explicitly view ourselves as not editors. We don't want to have editorial judgment over the content that's in your feed. You've made your friends, you've connected to the pages that you want to connect to and you're the best decider for the things that you care about."

And, just last week Andy Mitchell, Facebook's director of news and global media partnerships, told a journalism conference in Perugia [PEAR OU JA] that the social network only wants to "improve the experience" of Facebook users getting the news they're most interested in.

This may ring true for Facebook and perhaps most of its users, but for journalists, it's patent bullshit. Of course Facebook controls the feed, of course they act as editors and of course user experience is only important as it serves Facebook.

So, there are two problems here.

First, publishers will be at the mercy of what Facebook considers to be an ideal newsfeed mix, a concoction that changes with the whims of Facebook and whatever user data and demographics they toss into the soup. It will rarely have anything to do with the quality, accuracy, importance or providence of the news.

Second, Facebook is not to be trusted. It misuses its audience and misleads about its intentions. It serves itself first. It is the Norma Bates of social networks.

In the long run, print publishers who hop in the sack with Facebook are heading for heartbreak.

Listen to an audio version of this column, read by the author, here.

Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years, and is a long-time writer for rabble.ca on technology and the Internet.

Image: Chris Lister/flickr

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