Facebook’s Sri Lankan Guinea Pigs

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By 2018-01-10

By Michael Gregson

Social media giant Facebook is experimenting on users in Sri Lanka, in a move which has been condemned as 'downright Orwellian.' The experiment, which began 19 October last year, involves limiting the core component of Facebook's social network to only personal posts and paid adverts.

Posts from public media groups, such as those from Ceylon Today, are being relegated from their formerly prominent positions on the users Facebook home page to a separate 'ExploreFeed.'

The six countries involved are Sri Lanka, Guatemala, Bolivia, Cambodia, Serbia and Slovakia, which account for around 1% of the world's population.

The result is that local media in these countries have effectively been sidelined by Facebook – with a consequent collapse in online readership.

Dina Fernandez, a journalist and member of the editorial board at Guatemalan news site Soy502 told the Guardian, "The Facebook explore tab killed 66% of our traffic. Just destroyed it ... years of really hard work were just swept away. It has been catastrophic, and I am very, very worried."

It's a similar story in Slovakia, where data from Facebook-owned analytics site CrowdTangle shows that 'interactions – engagement such as likes, shares and comments – fell by 60% overnight for the Facebook pages of a broad selection of the country's media.

This is very bad for smaller news organizations that find readers through Facebook, but can't afford the expensive advertising budgets of bigger companies.

"It's going to make them virtually invisible," says Jane Singer, professor of journalism innovation at City University in London.

Facebook has yet to explain why Sri Lanka and the other 5 countries were singled out for the 'Explore Feed' experiment. But there are some worrying implications.

Cambodia comes close to the bottom of the World Press Freedom Index with the government keeping very close links with leading media organization. In July 2016, Kem Ley, a political commentator and vocal critic of the government, was shot dead in broad daylight in a coffee shop in the capital, Phnom Penh.

Bolivia, Guatemala and Sri Lanka also feature in the bottom half of the press freedom rankings. In the 2017 index, Sri Lanka comes in at 141 out of 180 countries, despite recent measures such as the creation of the National Secretariat for Media Reforms.

"A lot of really good journalism is being done by smaller hungry organizations," said City University Professor Singer.

In the UK, Singer warned that a similar move would play into the hands of our biggest media brands. "It seems it would help organizations like the Daily Mail that have a big following."

In a blog post defending the experiment, Adam Mosseri, Facebook's head of news feed, explained the experiment was designed to work out what people wanted to see in their feeds. "The goal of this test is to understand if people prefer to have separate places for personal and public content. We will hear what people say about the experience to understand if it's an idea worth pursuing any further," he wrote.

But Facebook is much more than just a place where people go to find out what their friends are up to. It has become a major online news source. For example, 45 per cent of Americans get at least some of their news from it.

In the past, Facebook has been happy to promote the ideas of whoever paid – no questions asked. Earlier this year it admitted that Russian-backed agencies had likely spent $100, 000 on Facebook ads promoting polarising views on immigration, race and gay rights.

Last September, a ProPublica investigation found Facebook enabled advertisers to target users through anti-Semitic ad categories such as 'Jew Haters.'

Facebook has been quick to take advertiser money and slow to really put any limits on how those advertisers use the social media platform.

"It would be an appalling thing for democracy if the only people that could get their message out were the ones that won a bidding war," said Singer,
Guatemalan journalist Dina Fernandez shares these concerns. "I'm worried about the impact of Facebook on democracy," said Fernandez.

"One company in particular has a gigantic control on the flow of information worldwide. This alone should be worrisome. It's downright Orwellian."

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