The Horrors of No-News Facebook
Bible quotes and teddy bears forever
In February 2021, Facebook abruptly wiped all of the news from its platform in Australia. The country’s lawmakers were trying to force the company to share its profits with media outlets, and this was the dramatic response. The gambit worked: After a nearly week-long blackout, which extended to pages from Australian nonprofits and government services, the new regulations were scaled back. “A digitally savvy nation woke up Thursday to a shock on Facebook: The news was gone,” The New York Times’ Sydney-bureau chief, Damien Cave, wrote at the time. “More frightening was what remained: pages dedicated to aliens and U.F.O.s; one for a community group called Say No to Vaccines; and plenty of conspiracy theories, some falsely linking 5G to infertility, others spreading lies about Bill Gates and the end of the world.” He described Australians “wandering” around a newsless Facebook, “dazed as if after a flood.”
This incident inspired a journalism professor named Jean-Hugues Roy, at the University of Quebec in Montreal, to conduct an experiment. Roy, who had long been concerned about Facebook’s relationship to journalism, imagined that the same thing could happen in Canada, which was pressuring Facebook in much the same way that Australia had. For a study published earlier this month, called “Kittens and Jesus: What would remain on a newsless Facebook?,” he used the Facebook analytics tool CrowdTangle to download 3.3 million French-language posts from 2020 originating in four countries—Belgium, Canada, France, and Switzerland. Media outlets accounted for 28.7 percent of these, and their posts were deleted. Roy then used natural-language processing to figure out what was left.
Clickbait, fan pages, and “feel-good meme pages” made up a lot of what remained on a newsless social platform—“things I would see on my mother’s Facebook,” Roy told me. He was surprised by the volume of religious content he found: The top page in French Canada publishes Bible quotes and memes, and received two interactions every three seconds throughout 2020; a leading site in Switzerland called “La Bible” “carpet-bomb[s] the social network with biblical memes.” Overall, the French words for God and Jesus Christ were among the most common in his data set.
Other common words on no-news Facebook included recette (“recipe”) and huile olive (“olive oil”), as well as concours (“contest”) and bonne chance (“good luck”). But Roy was also struck by the frequency with which people make posts that are generically friendly or inspiring, such as those that just say “Have a nice day.” The French phrases bonne journée and belle journée were the top two-word phrases. “Alone, they generated 1.1 percent of all interactions in all non-media posts,” he told me. “It’s actually a lot, considering the size of this corpus.”
He found these posts kind of creepy. Have a nice day! Have a nice day! Have a nice day! “It gives me shivers when I see that popping up on my News Feed,” he said, though he understands that as a 56-year-old he is in the demographic for random utterances of this kind. His study also found a very high level of what he described to me as “cuddly bears” content. Plus, for whatever reason, Swiss Facebook is particularly fixated on astrology.
Notably, among the blandness, there was little of the chaos that an American Facebook user might expect. “I was expecting a lot of disinformation and misinformation,” Roy said, but he discovered very little. That doesn’t mean you can’t find conspiratorial rants or misinformed opinions in French on Facebook, but maybe there are fewer than Americans are used to seeing. Roy cited a Swiss paper that tried to predict online users’ resilience to disinformation in 18 countries, including the four countries in his study. That research listed Belgium, Canada, and Switzerland among the less politically polarized and more disinformation-resilient nations, while the U.S. was an outlier in the other direction.
Roy’s newsless Facebook, however, looked a lot like an experimental experience I created for myself last year on American Facebook. In November, I tried to make a fresh, totally apolitical account with a News Feed that would be devoid of anything that could possibly inspire a partisan opinion. As I wrote at the time, Facebook without news and politics (or, admittedly, any friends or family) amounted to little more than “bad advice, stolen memes, shady businesses, and sophomoric jokes repeated over and over.”
I’m far from the first person to point out that Facebook has been largely overrun with garbage content. Now Roy’s study suggests that, without news links, many users will find almost nothing of value. Sarah Schmalbach, a product director who works in journalism, came to the same conclusion in 2016 after manually removing news from her own Facebook feed and seeing what was left: “mostly personal photos, advertisements and a range of rants.” Like Roy, Schmalbach suggests that companies like Facebook should be sharing revenue with news organizations.
In this context, Facebook's News Feed—which has never been limited to news reports, per se—has been a site of anxiety for both users and the company itself, which tinkers with the items it promotes there, adjusting for emotional valence, political inflection, and concentration of media content. In April 2021, Product Management Director Aastha Gupta wrote in a company blog post that Facebook had heard its users’ wishes for “more inspiring and uplifting content,” and would be experimenting with moving “more inspirational posts” closer to the top of the News Feed. Six months later, The Washington Post’s Will Oremus argued that the feed had become a “junk-mail folder.”
In an email, a Facebook spokesperson told me that the “inspirational content” test is over, and that news-article links compose a very small part of the Facebook experience, making up only 4 percent of what users see in their feeds. The company cited the same statistic in February 2021, when it blocked news content for users in Australia. (Roy’s findings from 2020 only accounted for posts on public pages—he can’t see individual users’ feeds—but he still guessed that Facebook was making a “slight underestimation.”) And at least as a proper, proprietary noun, the News Feed is defunct: This February, the company snipped the name so users would just be scrolling through their “Feed.” An internal memo said the old name made people think the News Feed was specifically for news, and not also posts from friends or other things. After 15 years, Facebook finally decided it was time to address that confusion.
As the company renovates and overhauls its user experience in an effort to regain relevance, it could be getting closer and closer to the newsless alternate universe that Roy and others have created in experiments. Facebook used to emphasize its role as a protector of democracy and as a vital news source. The new era looks to be about something simpler: Have a nice day! Have a nice day! Have a nice day!