News publishers should be leery of Facebook, Google algorithms

By Sergio Sicheri

El Comercio Group

Lima, Perú


One morning I woke up and couldn’t breathe. After testing positive for COVID-19, the hardest thing was getting through day five of the disease. In different parts of the world, and especially in Peru where we do not have a good health system, the emergency area of hospitals or clinics are at full capacity. That day was not an exception. After a long wait to be seen in a private clinic and after a few hours of examinations, a computed tomography scan showed what I never imagined. COVID-19 had attacked 20% of my lung. “And now?” I wondered.

I was discharged from the emergency room. At home, I received a second opinion from a private doctor, who recommended I get oxygen to help and not put strain on the remaining part of my lung that was in good condition.

That day we Googled: “Where do I get an oxygen balloon in Lima?” Over the previous days, since receiving a positive antigen swab test, my wife, my son (one year and two months old), and I conducted various searches on the Web: “How to read the values that the oximeter returns.” “The use of Ivermectin.” “What is Fluidaza for?” “Azithromycin for COVID.” These were just a few of the searches and questions about different medications and care for this disease.

News publishers have relied on features like Facebook Instant Articles to extend the reach of their content.
News publishers have relied on features like Facebook Instant Articles to extend the reach of their content.

It is not curious that among the most frequent searches of 2020 in the world, according to a Google report, the questions referring to “why?” and “what?” were the ones that won the ranking. Among them, across the world, was the query “Why is it called COVID-19?”

In Peru, the most important search was also “coronavirus” followed by “bono universal,” a debt security that, in this case, our government made available free of charge for many Peruvians. All those people in need — first, they were looking to see if they benefited from the bonus, and then how to collect it and where to receive it, among other questions.

When we talk about building audiences in media, it is always linked to data so there is a guideline. It is through correctly reading the numbers that we can create various content and bet on reaching certain communities or audiences we have not reached yet.

Additionally, I believe in intuition — the need to observation and sharpen or educate various senses such as hearing and taste that are a fundamental part of journalism. With recent technological advances, the classic techniques of this profession have been deprioritised. Let us remember that these are fundamental tools to train or attack — in the good sense of the word — diverse audiences.

In the midst of a pandemic, 2021 seems to have many similarities to the year we left behind. But as communicators, we have to anticipate the future. This is another good practice.

Therefore, we must focus on how the vaccination process is going to continue in different countries. What will happen once the vast majority are vaccinated? I was talking last week with a doctor who has already received the first dose of the vaccine in our country — because he works on the frontline facing this disease and that was how our state prioritised — and he told me, “After receiving the second dose, we do not know if we will have to vaccinate again next year.” We will have to answer all these questions and queries in the media, and we will fight to appear first in Google searches in that regard.

There are still many questions, even within the medical environment, about the new strains of this disease that continue to appear. They force us, as communicators, to continue examining all the aspects of COVID-19 and the consequences it not only leaves in people but also in a changing culture. To realise this, we have to continue training all our senses.

The population will continue to be concerned about health and the environment, as well as constant disinfection. This will continue to be a big part of our work just as it was 2020, especially with evergreen content. Media will have to go deeper and, above all, they must follow an instigating process of fact-checking on that type of content. We must uncover conspiracy theories that are part of day-to-day conversation in the flow and exchange of content on WhatsApp, Instagram, and Facebook.

Curiously, these three platforms belong to Mark Zuckerberg and their policies have been questioned in different countries. The latest news about Facebook happened in Australia, where the social network took drastic measures so users from that country couldn’t see or share news in the space. This is in response to a new Australian law that requires companies such as Google and Facebook to pay for the news content they share.

For many media outlets around the world, Facebook is a great source of traffic for their Web pages. I always thought it was not healthy for an entire strategy to revolve around a platform we do not own or control. It terrifies me there are some media dependent on more than 40% of their Web traffic on Facebook.

In 2021, Zuckerberg’s social network will continue ensuring media align with its policies. Beware, they have made it public through their spokespersons. These are policies that trigger not only some media’s traffic but also their income and monetisation strategies. Let’s remember that for four years, Facebook put a lot of effort and money into the Facebook Journalism Project. With the narrative of “helping journalism,” I think Facebook is trying to cover up the main problem of fake news on its platform — those conspiracy theories multiplying at high speed across social networks.

Recall that last year digital media traffic skyrocketed in mid-March with the first wave of COVID-19 and, therefore, the income that came from this programmatic source. Of course, I think seeing it would not be good business, Facebook adjusted its algorithm, lowering the scope of the content expressly linked to COVID-19. The same happened with the cost for ads displayed on traffic sources such as Facebook Instant Articles at that time. The company had to correct everything because it was falling apart.

To that second point (the commercial side), Facebook tried to stabilise and correct. The same has not happened with content publication policies that are increasingly drastic and a direct attack on the exercise of journalism. We all know it, but unfortunately many media still depend on this platform. Therefore, if they want to have those traffic steroids that are social networks, they have to adjust titles, images, and content in general, just as Facebook wants it. These are Facebook’s policies. It is their game.

Throughout 2020 but especially in May, the media was tied to the Google algorithm’s drastic changes. In 2021, it seems to be Facebook that wants to capture our attention. An important thing we are witnessing is an interesting evolution and appearance of the media in Google Discover. The topics of interest to Google have been made public: books, events, movies, music, sports, and video games, among other evergreen content. We know that newsworthy, violent events are increasingly punished in terms of scope. Facebook is no stranger to this.

While all media accelerate content coverage about COVID-19, Facebook restricts the reach to such news and to that content. This is how it has been hitting media traffic since last year. This social network seeks alignment with its policies. It does not want to have negative news or be affiliated to criminal acts. It’s even worse if a nationality or community is mentioned in the headline.

There are media that survive specifically with that type of content and especially from the traffic Facebook used to provide them in that sense. We can be for or against such journalism, but this is precisely why the freedom of press exists. Under this new panorama, many digital press brands will need to review their audience strategy. This reminds me of the book “Faceboom” published in 2009 by Argentine Juan Faerman. He wrote of Facebook as a platform in the ideal world, in which only likes exist and dislikes could put the press in checkmate.

About Sergio Sicheri

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