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Test countries for Facebook warn of risks

Test countries for Facebook warn of risks

Like it or not, Bolivia has become guinea pig in company's continual quest to reinvent itself
Test countries for Facebook warn of risks
A newspaper vendor stands on the streets of La Paz, Bolivia, on Jan. 12, 2018.
Photographer: New York Times

SAN FRANCISCO — One morning in October, the editors of Página Siete, Bolivia’s third-largest news site, noticed that traffic to their outlet coming from Facebook was plummeting. Editors feared it was being targeted by hackers loyal to the government.

But it wasn’t the government’s fault. It was Facebook’s.

The Silicon Valley company was testing a new version of its hugely popular News Feed, peeling off professional news sites from what people normally see and relegating them to a new section of Facebook called Explore. Like it or not, Bolivia had become a guinea pig in the company’s continual quest to reinvent itself.

As Facebook updates and tweaks its service in order to keep users glued to their screens, countries like Bolivia are ideal testing grounds thanks to their growing, internet-savvy populations. But these changes can have significant consequences, such as limiting the audience for nongovernmental news sources and — surprisingly — amplifying the impact of fabricated and sensational stories.

On Thursday, Facebook announced plans to make similar changes to its News Feed around the world. The company said it was trying to increase “meaningful interaction” on its site by drawing attention to content from family and friends while de-emphasizing content from brands and publishers, including The New York Times.

Facebook said these News Feed modifications were not identical to those introduced in fall in six countries through its Explore program, but both alterations favor posts from friends and family over professional news sites. And what happened in those countries — Slovakia, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Bolivia, Guatemala and Serbia — illustrates the unintended consequences of such a change.

In Slovakia, where right-wing nationalists took nearly 10 percent of parliament in 2016, publishers said the changes had actually helped promote fake news. With official news organizations forced to spend money to place themselves in the News Feed, it is now up to users to share information.

“People usually don’t share boring news with boring facts,” said Filip Struharik, the social media editor of Denník N, a Slovakian subscription news site that saw a 30 percent drop in Facebook engagement after the changes.

Facebook did not respond to questions about the Explore program, but Adam Mosseri, head of Facebook’s News Feed, said in a statement Friday that the company took its role as a “global platform for information” seriously.

“We have a responsibility to the people who read, watch and share news on Facebook, and every test is done with that responsibility in mind,” he said.

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