Photo: AP

Facebook tests of a major change to the way its News Feed works in at least six countries have once again raised fears the social media giant—a powerful gatekeeper between publishers and audiences—could be preparing to doom parts of the media, the Guardian reported.

Per the Guardian, Facebook has tested a new layout in which posts from friends and family as well as paid advertisements appear in the News Feed users see when they log in, while non-promoted posts would be “shifted over to a secondary feed” called the Facebook Explore Feed. That system could essentially relegate most Facebook pages, which many publishers use to reach audiences, to second-tier status unless they shell out money to promote their posts—and according to the Guardian report, many small publishers in the test markets in Slovakia, Serbia, Sri Lanka, and elsewhere have already seen huge hits to their social reach.

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“The change has seen users’ engagement with Facebook pages drop precipitously, from 60% to 80%,” the paper wrote. “... Overnight, from Wednesday to Thursday, a broad cross-section of the 60 largest Facebook pages in Slovakia saw two-thirds to three-quarters of their Facebook reach disappear, according to stats from Facebook-owned analytics service CrowdTangle.”

In a blog post, Slovak journalist Filip Struhárik of Dennik N called the initial results the most dramatic drops in organic reach he’d ever seen. But he told the Guardian, “It’s hard to say now how big it will be. Problems have also hit ‘Buzzfeed-like’ sites, which were more dependent on social traffic.”

It’s “the classic Facebook playbook,” Enders Analysis senior research analyst Matti Littunen told the Guardian. “First give lots of organic reach to one content type, then they have to pay for reach, then they can only get through to anyone by paying.”

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The big issue here is that many websites—particularly new media ventures—are very reliant on a handful of places to get traffic. This is particularly true regarding Facebook, which operates as a sort of central digital hub for news and discussion for vast swathes of the population, and is so dominant in that role its power is increasingly unchallengeable and frankly sort of terrifying. Larger publications like the New York Times tend to have more diversified sources of traffic and are more insulated from the problem. But the majority of the media is likely vulnerable to some extent, and there’s only so many other places to go. For example, a search engine-based strategy still leaves a site open to the whims of Google.

Compounding this is Facebook’s News Feed algorithm, which is a black box of variables shifting audiences from one trending topic to the next, and Facebook’s rapid-fire switches from a focus on one kind of content to another. For example, remember that Facebook Live craze, or its ongoing and chaotic handling of Instant Articles? To the user, these might appear as short-term trends. But to media companies whose entire model relies on a steady flow of Facebook clicks, any one of these changes can be seismic, with millions of dollars in personnel and equipment being shifted from one project to another in the blink of an eye. And there’s not exactly a huge surplus of money in media for promoted posts right now.

So it’s not surprising that the possibility of the spigot being cut off entirely is unnerving some folks. But this is just a test, and it’s not clear whether Facebook could ultimately choose to ditch the idea. It could also just be a way to drum up data for some other kind of change—or whatever version of the two-feed format it does roll out could end up driving just as much traffic. And for the company’s part, Facebook’s head of News Feed Adam Mosseri says “It’s not global and there are no plans to be.”

Much ado about nothing or not, this is yet another reminder that much of the media ecosystem that produces the content you read every day is built on Facebook’s sand, and that sand could shift at any time. And sometimes it might shift right into a sinkhole.

[The Guardian]

Update 12:05am ET: In response to a request for comment, Facebook referred Gizmodo to this blog post containing what Mosseri called a clarification of the test.

Mosseri again stated the company had no plans to “roll this test out further,” and added the intent was never to examine whether Facebook could have publishers “pay for all their distribution in News Feed or Explore.” But he also wrote that a dual-feed model was something Facebook is still examining and that more tests may be coming.

For simplicity’s sake, we’ve copied the response below:

There have been a number of reports about a test we’re running in Sri Lanka, Bolivia, Slovakia, Serbia, Guatemala, and Cambodia. Some have interpreted this test as a future product we plan to deliver globally. We currently have no plans to roll this test out further.

We always listen to our community about ways we might improve News Feed. People tell us they want an easier way to see posts from friends and family. We are testing having one dedicated space for people to keep up with their friends and family, and another separate space, called Explore, with posts from pages.

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. There is no current plan to roll this out beyond these test countries or to charge pages on Facebook to pay for all their distribution in News Feed or Explore. Unfortunately, some have mistakenly made that interpretation — but that was not our intention.

It’s also important to know this test in these six countries is different than the version of Explore that has rolled out to most people. Outside of the above countries, Explore is a complementary feed of popular articles, videos, and photos automatically customized for each person based on content that might be interesting to them. We’ve heard from people that they want an easy way to discover relevant content from pages they haven’t connected with yet. While Explore includes content from relevant pages, posts from pages that people like or follow will continue to appear in News Feed.

As with all tests we run, we may learn new things that lead to additional tests in the coming months so we can better understand what works best for people and publishers.

Correction: This article originally misidentified Struhárik as Finnish.