Folha de S. Paulo, the newspaper with the largest circulation in Brazil, surprised the news industry on Feb. 8 by announcing it would stop publishing content on Facebook as its directors believe that recent changes in the social network’s algorithm diminish the visibility of professional journalism and favor the spread of false content. The newspaper’s executive editor, Sérgio Dávila, says there are reports of similar moves in other newsrooms.
"The more [newsrooms] that make similar decisions, the better for professional journalism," he told the Knight Center via email.
Though media outside Brazil do not appear to be making similar moves from Facebook, Dávila pointed to attention his newspaper has been receiving since announcing it’s decision to leave the social media platform.
"The interest of the foreign media that our decision has aroused shows that there are other newsrooms thinking in a similar way," the editor said.
In January of this year, Facebook warned that its algorithm would give more relevance to personal content, produced by friends or family. This is in opposition to posts shared by companies –such as media outlets, which have come to appear less on users' timelines.
In Thursday’s announcement, Folha said that the strategy of the social network facilitates the mass distribution of deliberately false content. In addition, there is no guarantee that the reader will receive positions contradictory to those shared by their Facebook contacts.
"This reinforces the user's tendency to consume more and more content they have an affinity for, favoring the creation of bubbles of opinions and beliefs, and the propagation of fake news," read the announcement.
A survey by Folha indicated that the engagement of users with pages of professional journalism was already in decline as the interaction with fake news pages grew. Likes, reactions, comments and shares of 21 pages from producers of false content grew 61.6 percent between October 2017 and January 2018. Among 51 pages from Brazilian media companies, engagement fell by 17 percent over the same period.
In a post that announced the algorithm change, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the move seeks to improve the user experience on the platform.
“But recently we've gotten feedback from our community that public content –posts from businesses, brands and media –is crowding out the personal moments that lead us to connect more with each other”.
Asked to comment on Folha’s exit from Facebook, the social network advised via email to the Knight Center that the company is committed “to building an informed community, and we continue to work with publishers in Latin America so they can leverage our platform to connect with their audiences in meaningful ways.”
According to the company spokesperson's statement, the social network is “taking decisive steps to make sure the news people see on Facebook is informative and high quality.”
Starting last year, the social network has promoted attempts to get closer to actors in the journalistic industry with the Facebook Journalism Project. The initiative seeks to find ways for media companies to better utilize the platform and make their presence more profitable, according to AdAge magazine. In Brazil, for example, Facebook and fact-checking website Aos Fatos launched a project for a fact-checking bot to combat fake news ahead of the Brazilian elections.
The company has also experimented with Instant Articles. Launched in 2015, this is a way to accelerate the uploading of partner media stories directly into the Facebook app. Big media companies, however, have abandoned the platform, which was infested by fake news producers– according to a recent Buzzfeed report, at least 29 pages used Instant Articles to post fake news. Folha has never accepted the tool’s conditions of use.
"[In Instant Articles], outlets transfer their content for free to the social network, without the right to charge for access to it, in exchange for speeding up the loading of the pages. The only compensation offered by Facebook concerns the sale of ads within its platform," the newspaper wrote in its recent announcement.
For Dávila, paying companies that produce professional journalism for content published in social media is one of the main measures that Facebook should take to privilege quality journalism on the platform.
"Studies indicate that one-third of the content shared on Facebook comes from professional journalism. How much does Facebook profit from such content? How much are you willing to pay for it?” he asked.
Even before a change in the algorithm, Folha had been experiencing a decline in the importance of Facebook as a distribution channel, as the newspaper said in its announcement. There are 5.95 million followers of the outlet’s fanpage –the largest number among Brazilian newspapers.
Data from a survey carried out by the São Paulo outlet indicates that the engagement of the top 10 Brazilian newspapers on the social platform fell 32 percent from January to December last year. The Communication Verification Institute (IVC, for its initials in Portuguese) told The Guardian that access to the top 10 newspaper sites on Facebook dropped from 9 percent to 7 percent in the last seven months of 2017. Facebook's own numbers showed that users spent 50 million hours less per day on the social network in the last two months of last year, according to The Telegraph.
Regarding revenue, Facebook, along with Google, represents only 5 percent of the digital revenue of publications, according to a Digital Content Next publication reported on by Digiday. However, in 2017 the social network was the individual platform that most generated resources for publishers (income $1.5 million, 59 percent of all money generated from social media), according to Brazil’s National Association of Newspapers (ANJ).
For Folha, the departure of Facebook does not represent great concern about the decline of readers. "Some drop in audience is expected –but not great, since the audience generated by Facebook is declining," Davila said. "We intend to invest more in newsletters and other social networking and sharing applications."
According to Dávila, the discussion that ended with the newspaper’s departure from Facebook began in 2016. In 2017, Folha launched a new editorial project, in which it positions itself as a "public square" facing the "closed condominium of self-referential convictions of social networks." In the editorial project, the newspaper is critical of the "sterile reiteration of preexisting habits and opinions" on the internet.
The newspaper continues to update its profiles on Twitter (6.2 million followers), LinkedIn (726,000) and Instagram (727,000). Folha continues to edit content for social media – according to Dávila, its attribution continues being "to make our content attractive for who wants to consume it.”
"But as our new Editorial Project says, we do not want the click-through," Davila said. "What is really interesting to us is the reader who comes to read a report and continues on our site[...] It’s the moment for a qualified audience who agrees to pay for quality content."
Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.