In the years leading up to the 2016 U.S. election, Facebook became the world’s de facto morning newspaper—and everyone wanted to land on A1. With more and more people getting their news on the app and in the news feed, media companies competed in the company’s algorithmic sweepstakes, crafting headlines and story ideas to induce clicks, likes, and shares on the social network.
It was often a dirty game: one in which accuracy and nuance could be sacrificed on the altar of “engagement.” But for a time it seemed to work well enough, at least for the publishers willing and able to play along. In return for free content from news organizations, Facebook directed spurts of readers to their websites, which converted the page views into ad revenue.
That era’s over. Since 2017, scandals involving fake news, Russian electoral interference, and user privacy have sullied the social network’s reputation. Facebook has responded to the criticism partly by trying to exert more control over what stories appear in users’ feeds—but also partly by simply showing them less news. For many publishers (though certainly not all), traffic from Facebook has nosedived.