Facebook’s fake news fight has collateral damage for small sites

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Cyrus Massoumi spent the last few years building exactly what he thought would thrive on Facebook: A series of inflammatory conservative websites, finely tuned to produce the most viral and outrageous version of the news. The social network rewarded him with an audience.

These days, Facebook Inc. wants something different. Reacting to concerns about how fake news spread on its social network, including by Russian propagandists, the company has altered its algorithm to punish sites like Massoumi’s. Facebook has put out a series of blog posts explaining how higher quality content will be rewarded.

Massoumi said he had to decide between running “a garbage website that is barely profitable after the fake news crisis” and a “clean website.” He chose clean. In August, he shut down his biggest partisan website, MrConservative.com, and poured his resources into TruthExaminer, a liberal website he launched just before the election. He made sure it played by Facebook’s stricter rules, especially around clickbait – headlines manipulated solely to attract page views. “You know exactly what you’re getting with all our headlines,” Massoumi said.

There was one glaring problem: less traffic. When Facebook changed its algorithm to disrupt the financial incentives for fake news, the tweaks had a collateral effect on the whole ecosystem of businesses built on its news feed, including Massoumi’s liberal property. Traffic for TruthExaminer went down 60% starting in March and hasn’t recovered, according to Nicole James, his editor-in-chief.

To build a business on Facebook is to accept volatility. The company has played host to many startups tuned specifically for what its algorithm rewards, only to crush them later. In 2014, the feel-good website Upworthy reached almost 90 million unique visitors, built on curiosity-gap headlines like “9 Out of 10 Americans Are Completely Wrong About This Mind-Blowing Fact.”