Last week, Facebook announced that it was launching a new test that would reduce the political content in people’s newsfeeds.
As explained by Facebook:
“As Mark Zuckerberg mentioned in our recent earnings call, we often hear that people don’t want political content to take over their news feed. Over the next few months we will be working to better understand and test the diversity of people’s political content preferences Take a number of approaches based on these findings. As a first step, we will temporarily reduce the distribution of political content in newsfeeds for a small percentage of people in Canada, Brazil and Indonesia this week in the US in the coming weeks. “
What seems like a positive move – Facebook has long been criticized for allowing potentially dangerous, politically motivated movements to thrive, leading to various incidents of real damage, the most famous being the recent Capitol Siege. This was apparently the final straw for The Social Network, which is now trying to update its approach as the community’s expectations evolve.
All good right? A step in the right direction for the post-Trump era. Right?
Perhaps there is a lot to consider in this shift, and it may well have an impact on your approach to digital marketing.
First of all, it is worth considering what the motives for this change are.
As mentioned, many have pointed to Facebook as an important mediator of politically divisive content, mainly because this type of discussion encourages engagement on the platform. This is repeatedly reflected in Facebook’s own statistics. For example, this Twitter handle, compiled by, for example, Kevin Roose of the New York Times, shares the top performing link posts from US Facebook pages, sorted by total interactions, every day.
The top performing link posts from US Facebook pages in the past 24 hours were from:
1. And Bongino
2. The dodo
3. RFA Burmese
4. Ben Shapiro
7. Ben Shapiro
8. Fox News
9. Ben Shapiro
– Facebooks Top 10 (@ FacebooksTop10) February 12, 2021
As you can see, posts from far-right sites like Ben Shapiro, Newsmax, and Fox News rank high and regularly dominate these lists.
The statistics don’t lie – pages that take more partisan, divisive, and argumentative positions tend to see more engagement on Facebook. Because this approach leads to emotional responses, and emotional responses are key to provoking a response. Reactions lead to comments, likes, shares, and this engagement then tells the Facebook algorithm that this is something that people are actively interested in, which gives them more reach, more dissemination and thus Facebook benefits, and consequently these too Perspectives are distributed.
The equation is pretty simple, but Facebook has repeatedly argued that political content is not as important an element as people might think.
Back in November, in response to Roose’s top ten lists, Facebook posted an official response in which it stated:
“Most of the content is what people see [on Facebook]Even in an election season, it’s not about politics. According to our analysis, political content accounts for around 6% of what you see on Facebook. This includes posts from friends or pages (these are public profiles created by companies, brands, celebrities, media, causes, and the like). ”
So political content isn’t even a big deal, according to Facebook, which downplays the platform’s role in promoting social division.
In contrast, Facebook shared its own list of the pages that had the greatest reach in newsfeeds in a given week.
According to Facebook, it’s not politics, but rather light-hearted, entertaining content that generates reach. Nonetheless, the company has increasingly recognized the possible effects of politically motivated content, albeit not through its statements, but through its actions.
Facebook banned QAnon groups back in August and stepped up enforcement against the conspiracy movement again in October. It also introduced new rules on misinformation in elections and eventually banned U.S. President Donald Trump from his platform for his role in sparking the Capitol Riots.
Clearly, whether due to public pressure or internal implementation, Facebook has taken action against politically motivated content. And now this is to be expanded even further – but is that due to a change of heart or a change in user behavior?
The latest figures from Facebook suggest that there are some problems on the latter side as daily active use of the platform in the US decreases.
Hence, people are coming to Facebook less than before, at a time when people are increasingly relying on digital platforms to stay connected and stay up to date on the latest happenings. That would in itself be an internal concern for Zuck and Co., and as Zuckerberg himself admitted:
“One of the most important feedback we are hearing from our community right now is that people don’t want politics and struggles to take over their experience of our services.”
This could indicate that Facebook is experiencing a downturn in users due to the increasing politically motivated discourse, which is why it may now be decided that the additional engagement perks are no longer worth the setback.
It’s a good PR move, and if it helps Facebook retain users, it makes sense for the platform to cut down on political content.
But will it actually have an impact?
Everything is political
An interesting consideration is that it is not that easy to define what “political content” actually is.
OneZero’s Will Oremus recently delved into this, even interviewing Facebook reps about the complications of this process, who have admitted that there are significant complexities at play.
“What exactly is political content? How does Facebook define “political”? A group called “Biden for President” is pretty clearly qualified. But what about a Black Lives Matter group? Or a post about the MeToo movement? If I write a post in which mask mandates are criticized as a violation of my freedom, is that political? What if I write a post asking others to adhere to mask mandates? Is this being shown to fewer people now? Perhaps more in a nutshell, how does the Facebook algorithm know if my post is political or not? “
Facebook doesn’t have all the answers to these questions yet, of course, but the new process will appear to be aimed at cutting down “bipartisan outlets” in favor of more reputable, authoritative news providers.
This is what Facebook did in the wake of the US elections – in order to alleviate the growing fear in the community, which could actually lead to unrest at this point in time, Facebook deliberately narrowed the reach of more split news agencies on the platform.
According to the New York Times:
“The change led to an increase in Facebook traffic for mainstream news publishers like CNN, NPR and The New York Times, while partisan sites like Breitbart and Occupy Democrats saw their numbers decline.”
This resulted in Facebook employees being referred to internally as the “nicer” newsfeed, reducing the intensity of debates and divisions across the board while keeping people who rely on the platform for news properly informed.
According to reports, several employees actually asked if they could keep the nicer fodder beyond the post-election period. Well, that seems to be exactly what Facebook is doing – but as Oremus noted, the actual definitions will matter here, and Facebook’s processes for recognizing what should see decreased reach as a result will likely take some time avail themselves to evolve and shake out different effects.
A new news feed
This will of course have an impact on marketers as well. If there is less political content in feeds, it means there is more space for other content. If you’re on Facebook’s lists of the most engaging content outside of politics, a lot more entertainment-focused, light-hearted posts will get more reach.
As Convivas Nick Cicero noted in a recent interview with Digiday:
“Brands want to stand alongside feel-good content for a change, and since Facebook changes its algorithm so that no political content is advertised, community-driven lifestyle content will experience a moment of growth.”
Indeed, the change could cause Facebook to shift its focus back to several key elements, including lifestyle / entertainment posts, but also non-political groups (Facebook stopped promoting political groups back in November) and e-commerce.
Shopping on the platform has become a bigger focus for The Social Network, especially given the surge in e-commerce amid the pandemic. The gradual expansion of the Facebook shops will make more and more posts “buyable” on the platform, and the reduction in political content could pave the way for a new push towards increased product discovery and purchasing activity with a more extensive change in user behavior.
But it’s lifestyle and entertainment content that is likely the biggest beneficiary. If Facebook does make significant efforts to crowd out policy updates, it will seek to replace that commitment with lighter posts, and previous research by Buffer shows that inspirational, fun, and / or practical posts have the most commitment on the platform outside of politics .
This could pave the way for new brand promotion and engagement opportunities. The key is still in the emotional reaction and triggers an intense reaction in the viewer, which prompts him to like and share. However, you may well have new, expanded ways to generate more Facebook reach by focusing on these types of joyful, connecting updates as the split seems to be moving away from the split.
There is still a lot to come, and a lot of testing and experimentation, before we can determine what this change actually means for Facebook and digital marketing.
And that is more general too – will this change actually be good for society and the impact of Facebook more generally?
As May notes:
“What most of us really want from Facebook and other platforms is, I suspect, not“ less politics ”but less hate speech, less misinformation, less algorithmic propensity for shock, outrage and tribalism – in short, less distortive on politics. ”
Indeed, reducing algorithmic incentives for releasing partisans is crucial. However, if your business strategy is focused on maximizing user interaction, this is also crucial in promoting discussion.
Where and how Facebook draws the line will be crucial and could help find a better way for all platforms if things go right.