Near the close of the first year of the Trump presidency, executives at Facebook were briefed on some major changes to its News Feed—the code that determines which of the zillions of posts on the platform any one of us is shown when we look at Facebook. The story the company has publicly told is that it was working to “bring people closer together” by showing us more posts from friends and family, and to prioritize “trusted” and “informative” sources of news. The changes would also reduce how much news most people see, and therefore decrease revenue for many publishers.
What wasn’t publicly known until now is that Facebook actually ran experiments to see how the changes would affect publishers—and when it found that some of them would have a dramatic impact on the reach of right-wing “junk sites,” as a former employee with knowledge of the conversations puts it, the engineers were sent back to lessen those impacts. As the Wall Street Journal reported on Friday, they came back in January 2018 with a second iteration that dialed up the harm to progressive-leaning news organizations instead.
In fact, we have now learned that executives were even shown a slide presentation that highlighted the impact of the second iteration on about a dozen specific publishers—and Mother Jones was singled out as one that would suffer, while the conservative site the Daily Wire was identified as one that would benefit. These changes were pushed by Republican operatives working in Facebook’s Washington office under Vice President of Global Public Policy Joel Kaplan (who later made headlines for demonstratively supporting his friend Brett Kavanaugh during confirmation hearings).
Asked for comment, Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone would only say, “We did not make changes with the intent of impacting individual publishers. We only made updates after they were reviewed by many different teams across many disciplines to ensure the rationale was clear and consistent and could be explained to all publishers.”