professionals in countries such as and fear for effect Facebooks news feed changes will have on their already fragile

has been criticised for the worrying impact on democracy of its downright Orwellian decision to run an experiment seeing professional media removed from the main news feed in six countries.

The experiment, which began 19 October and is still ongoing, involves limiting the core element of Facebooks social network to only personal posts and paid adverts.

So-called public posts, such as those from media organisation Facebook pages, are being moved to a separate explore feed timeline. As a result, media organisations in the six countries containing 1% of the worlds population Sri Lanka, Guatemala, Bolivia, Cambodia, Serbia and Slovakia have had one of their most important publishing platforms removed overnight.

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

In Slovakia, 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 countrys media Facebook pages. Filip Struhrik, a Slovakian journalist with news site Dennk N, says the situation has since worsened, falling by a further 5%.

Lower reach can be a problem for smaller publishers, citizens initiatives, small NGOs, Struhrik said. They cant afford to pay for distribution on Facebook by boosting posts and they dont have infrastructure to reach people other ways.

Struhrik thinks his employer will survive the change. Dennk N has subscription revenue, which means it doesnt rely on the vast traffic that Facebook can drive for advertising income, and ensures that its most dedicated readers go straight to its homepage for their news. But Fernandez, in Guatemala, is much more concerned.

Even if Facebook reversed the change today, she says, I really dont know how long it will take to recover. If they reverse it fast enough it will be less difficult. If they take a long time, we might not be around. Soy502 is a new site in an unstable democracy where journalists and civil society groups already face an uphill battle to be heard.

We currently have a smear campaign that is targeting journalists, which is really vicious, fuelled by interest groups who are against the anti-corruption drive in our country, she says. We are regarded in the region as a success story on new media for the digital age. This can destroy us.

The explore feed

Marian
Marian Kotleba, chief of the far-right Kotleba in Slovakia. We have regional elections in two weeks, and a lot of members of the fascist party are candidates, so its not a good time to hide posts of serious news and show people a strange cocktail of random popular posts, says Struhrik. Photograph: Vaclav Salek/AP

Moving media content to the explore feed, a secondary section of the site that is rolling out worldwide, means users who really want to see posts from sites they follow have to click over to look for them if they can find them.

I dont know what the criteria used to show news is. I see a lot of junk in the feed, says Fernandez. At least with past algorithms you had an idea of what would show up. With these, its completely strange.

Fernandez shared examples of the sort of posts filling the explore feed: clips of wrestling and reality TV shows from pages like Filosraptor and Cabronazi (illustrated with a picture of Adolf Hitler in a pink uniform), but few pieces of content from the pages she and her colleagues had chosen to follow. My timeline is showing me very little local news.

In Slovakia memes and gifs are the better end of the spectrum. My explore feed looks quite normal, but a few people told me that they see distinct content here old jokes, alt-right pages, posts by non-standard politicians, said Struhrik. We have regional elections in two weeks, and a lot of members of the fascist party are candidates, so its not a good time to hide posts of serious news and show people a strange cocktail of random popular posts.

Where there are losers, there are winners. Jim Anderson, the chief executive of Facebook mega-publisher SocialFlow, says millions of publishers of all shapes and sizes have pages on Facebook, so there may well be someone out there who benefits.

In general, publishers concern is that the news feed is the primary Facebook experience for most users. Getting two billion people into the habit of consuming content in a new place is a tall order.

Its like we dont really matter, isnt it?

Trade
A trade unionist march calling for an end to corruption in Guatemala. The independent media in my country is vital to building a new democracy and fighting corruption, says journalist Otto Angel. Photograph: Esteban Biba/EPA

Facebook has long tested sweeping changes to its product on subsections of its user base. When it wanted to roll out a new stories feature, for instance, it did so in Ireland first; when it wanted to trial a new camera app, it did so in Brazil; when it wanted to test adverts in Messenger, Australia was the subject.

But in this case, the standard practice of focusing on smaller, less developed countries that matter less to the companys bottom line means that the nations which have been hit are those with the most riding on a stable media ecosystem.

Independent media in my country is vital to building a new democracy and fighting corruption, says Otto Angel, a broadcast journalist in Guatemala. Right now, we use Facebook Live to broadcast judicial hearings in corruption cases. With this catastrophe, we lose around 57% of clicks a day.

If I could speak with some officer of Facebook, I will ask if they can take back this project, Angel said.

Fernandez accused Facebook of simply not caring what happened to its test subjects. Its like it took sites in emerging markets where we dont really matter. We at Soy502 worked really hard to become a viable, respectable news site four years ago, and it all can be destroyed right away.

In a statement released Monday, Facebooks head of news feed, Adam Mosseri, said that the company currently had no plans to roll the test out further. But he added the purpose of the test was to see whether Facebook users prefer the site if personal and public posts are separated. If the results are positive, and Facebook does find that the metrics it seeks to optimise are improved by the experiment, then its plans could well change.

For those who rely on Facebook to campaign politically, share breaking news, or keep up to date with the world, that might be a concerning thought. Im 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. Its downright Orwellian.

Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/us