Serbia — My country, Serbia, has become an unwilling laboratory for
Facebook’s experiments on user behavior — and the independent,
nonprofit investigative journalism organization where I am the editor
in chief is one of the unfortunate lab rats.
month, I noticed that our stories had stopped appearing on Facebook as
usual. I was stunned. Our largest single source of traffic, accounting
for more than half of our monthly page views, had been crippled.
I thought, it was a glitch. It wasn’t.
had made a small but devastating change. Posts made by “pages” —
including those of organizations like mine — had been removed from the
regular News Feed, the default screen users see when they log on to
the social media site. They were now segregated into a separate
section called Explore Feed that users have to select before they can
see our stories. (Unsurprisingly, this didn’t apply to paid posts.)
wasn’t just in Serbia that Facebook decided to try this experiment
with keeping pages off the News Feed. Other small countries that
seldom appear in Western headlines — Guatemala, Slovakia, Bolivia and
Cambodia — were also chosen
by Facebook for the trial.
Some tech sites have reported that this feature
might eventually be rolled out to Facebook users in the rest of the
world, too. But of course no one really has any way of knowing what
the social media company is up to. And we don’t have any way to hold
it accountable, either, aside from calling it out publicly. Maybe
that’s why it has chosen to experiment with this new feature in small
countries far removed from the concerns of most Americans.
for us, changes like this can be disastrous. Attracting viewers to a
story relies, above all, on making the process as simple as possible.
Even one extra click can make a world of difference. This is an
existential threat, not only to my organization and others like it but
also to the ability of citizens in all of the countries subject to
Facebook’s experimentation to discover the truth about their societies
and their leaders.
is a perfect example of why the political context of Facebook’s
experimentation matters. Serbia escaped the dictatorship of Slobodan
Milosevic in 2000, but it
hasn’t developed into a fully functioning democracy. One party,
led by President Aleksandar Vucic, controls not only the Parliament
but also the
whole political system. Our country has no tradition of checks
and balances. Mr. Vucic now presents himself as progressive and
pro-European, but as minister of information in the Milosevic
government, he was responsible for censoring news coverage.
Sign Up for the Opinion Today Newsletter
Every weekday, get thought-provoking commentary
from Op-Ed columnists, the Times editorial board and contributing
writers from around the world.
censorship in Serbia takes a softer form. Pliant outlets loyal to the
government receive preferential treatment and better funding from local
and central budgets. Those that stray out of line find themselves
receiving unexpected visits from the tax inspectors.
Last year, KRIK
published an investigation showing that when he was a young surgeon,
Zlatibor Loncar, who is now minister of health, had been contracted by a
gang to kill one of its enemies, according to court testimony by protected
witnesses. You’d think the story of a future minister administering poison
through an IV would make a splash — but the mainstream outlets ignored it.
to KRIK’s website is the only way Serbian citizens could learn the truth
about that story and many others like it. And until last month, most of
our readers went to our site via Facebook.
allowed us to bypass mainstream channels and bring our stories to hundreds
of thousands of readers. But now, even as the social network claims to be
cracking down on “fake news,” it is on the verge of ruining us.
why Mark Zuckerberg’s arbitrary experiments are so dangerous. The major TV
channels, mainstream newspapers and organized-crime-run outlets will have
no trouble buying Facebook ads or finding other ways to reach their
audiences. It’s small, alternative organizations like mine that will
journalists bear some responsibility for this, too. Using Facebook to
reach our readers has always been convenient, so we invested time and
effort in building our presence there, helping it become the monster it is
what’s done is done — a private company, accountable to no one, has taken
over the world’s media ecosystem. It is now responsible for what happens
there. By picking small countries with shaky democratic institutions to be
experimental subjects, it is showing a cynical lack of concern for how its
decisions affect the most vulnerable.
that we’ve seen what Facebook does with its power, we have to figure out
how to put it in check. Twitter is Serbia’s second-most-used platform
very distant second). We’ll probably start relying on it more. It
may also be time to consider other, more
always been attracted to alternative scenes. In the 1990s, I ran a small,
independent punk magazine. Now, as an investigative editor and reporter, I
want to get at the stories the big, timid outlets won’t cover. In a
country like Serbia, independent sites like mine, and the few others that
survive, are the only places people can learn the truth.
could be a tool for such alternative spaces to thrive. Instead — at least
in Serbia — it risks becoming just another playground for the powerful.