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Facebook Just Gave The Finger To Millions Of People Who Use It For News

We hope you like baby pictures.

30/06/2016 5:45 AM AEST | Updated June 30, 2016 06:50
Dado Ruvic / Reuters

Facebook planted a flag Wednesday, declaring that the site will give greater weight to material posted by your friends and deemphasize content published by businesses and media outlets.

The social network approached the issue with a rare bit of candor, stating that the change to its News Feed will likely hurt traffic to external websites.

“We anticipate that this update may cause reach and referral traffic to decline for some Pages,” Lars Backstrom, engineering director at Facebook, wrote in a blog post.

Adam Mosseri, a vice president of product management at Facebook, doubled down in a statement to reporters.

“I’d expect reach for publishers to go down a small amount but a noticeable amount," he said.

This could have unintended consequences for people who rely on Facebook for news -- and there are a lot of them. A recent report from the Pew Research Center found that 44 percent of Americans get news from Facebook -- a bit more than 142 million people, all told. That same report found that 64 percent of Americans who receive news on social media use only one site. Maybe that's not the best practice, but it is what it is.

Now, as a consequence to prioritizing content from your friends over pages that you "like," Facebook may end up making you less informed about the outside world on balance. 

The Huffington Post asked Facebook for more details about what the shift will actually mean. It didn't get very specific.

"Our top priority is keeping you connected to the people, places and things you want to be connected to — starting with the people you are friends with on Facebook," a spokeswoman said via email. "One of the most meaningful ways people connect on Facebook is around news stories — so news is and remains a valuable part of News Feed."

Is a picture of your nephew getting married "news"? If so, is that more important than a breaking article about a terrorist attack? Who knows? Facebook is willing to guess based on what you've interacted with before. And as of Wednesday, you're more likely to see that news article if a friend posted it instead of a brand.

That seems reasonable, unless your friends don't post news. Or if your friends are all the same political party. While it's still possible to manually shape your feed with the "See First" button, many people passively rely on the site for much of their information about the world. Now, they'll be more reliant than ever on what their friends decide is important.

For that reason, some (like my colleague Emily Peck) welcomed the change as a happy reversion to what Facebook once was -- a place to connect with friends and family, not a news outlet. 

Of course, Facebook had transformed into something different recently.

"Measured by web traffic, ad revenue and influence over the way the rest of the media makes money, Facebook has grown into the most powerful force in the news industry," Farhad Manjoo wrote in The New York Times following Wednesday's update.

Facebook's algorithm tweaks always tend to send the media into a frenzy. And yes, that's partially because writers rely on Facebook to reach their audience and get paid.

But Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has repeatedly said that his company's goal is to "connect the world." As of Wednesday, that means more posts from your friends on the social network and less from other outlets -- for better or worse.

Read the other side of the argument: Facebook Finally Did Something To Make Facebook Better For You

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