Credit: Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

"Facebook, despite its issues, is our biggest traffic provider. So we have to keep it happy," says Hilary Mitchell, the audience editor of Pink News, an online news website aimed at LGBT+ audiences.

She has been burned before in her former role at Reach Plc's Edinburgh Live. The publication's Facebook account shared a post about a couple who were caught having sex on a train from Edinburgh to Glasgow and prosecuted.

The article had an image of the couple in a 'clinch' on a train table in November 2019. The image had been pixellated but Facebook ruled it was not enough to prevent the image from being seen as sexually explicit. Mitchell says that the post was hit with demonetisation and a year-long downgrade on the platform.

Now with Pink News, she is wary of punitive measures Facebook can take against news publishers. But the platform is too valuable to simply step away from. Pink News gets more than half (58 per cent) of its monthly traffic from Facebook. The rest is made up of search (25 per cent), Flipboard and other smaller sources (6 per cent) and internal (6 per cent).

What results in demonetisation and downranking?

Facebook's Sarah Brown, head of news partnerships for Northern Europe told that, generally speaking, the platform will take action against content that users tell them they dislike. That fits into two broader categories: engagement bait and clickbait.

You will have seen engagement bait before. It is a tactic that goads people into interacting through likes, shares, comments and other actions to boost engagement and reach: "share, comment and like for your chance to win..." or "if this post gets 1,000 likes we will..." or "like if you are a Sagittarius..." You get the picture. It is safe to say this is not really something you see news publishers getting involved with.

Facebook reviews and categorises hundreds of thousands of posts to inform a machine learning model that can detect different types of engagement bait. This model is built off of certain guidelines.

Then there is clickbait, which we have all fallen victim to once in our lives. A tempting headline that exaggerates the details of a story, or completely omits them so people have no idea what they are landing themselves into. And more often than not, the article itself does not justify the grandiose headline. Posts deemed as clickbait will appear lower in feeds, and again, there are guidelines on this.

As the headline appears on Facebook, this story from The Daily Express has nothing to do with The Queen ordering Manchester United shirts

As a bonus, honourable mentions go to promotions and giveaways, links to deceptive landing pages and domains, spam content, and content associated with low-quality publishing (unoriginal or lifted content, that with a suspicious number of clicks from Facebook versus elsewhere, or news content without information about authorship or the publisher's editorial staff). All of these will result in action taken against the page.

But it really comes down to specific words which result in action taken from Facebook. From trial and error, Mitchell says she has figured out that many classic journalistic words can be deemed as clickbait. As such, many are now out of use on their page, including:

  • shocking, shocked, shocks, miracle, amazing, reveal, reveals, revealed, explain, explains, you won't believe, unexpected, secret, this (as in 'this celeb just revealed' or 'this is one thing you never knew about Drag Race'), here's (as in, 'here's what RuPaul thinks about ...'), celeb or star (use their name), 'you won't believe x', mysterious, surprise, surprising, crazy, mind-boggling, jaw-dropping, insane, controversial, suddenly, unbelievable, chilling.

What do Facebook users see on the platform?

Facebook recently came out with a content transparency report for US activity in the first quarter of 2021. It set out to clarify exactly what US-based Facebook users see in their News Feed.

The most-viewed content only represents around 0.05 per cent of all content views (which is counted whenever a piece of content appears in News Feed).

More meaningful is the fact that the top 20 most-viewed domains account for just 2.2 per cent of all content views. At the very top is YouTube with 180m views that quarter, ranked 20th is a GIF provider. In between are websites like UNICEF, The Washington Post and Amazon. About half of the most-viewed domains are news publishers.

When it comes to links, fewer than 15 per cent of these most-view posts had links in them. The report then looked at the most-viewed URLs, and news outlets were quick to point out that topping the list was a news article from the Chicago Tribune (originally written by the South Florida Sun Sentinel) which linked a doctor's death to the Pfizer covid-19 vaccine, fueling anti-vaccine fears, without evidence to back it up (and the article has since been updated to reflect that).

Media analyst Thomas Baekdal went in depth on this subject on his website. The main point is that the 53m "content viewers" for the Tribune's article is an estimate of how many individual people scrolled past it in their News Feed. It is not the same as the number of people who actually read the post, or clicked through to the article. And news publishers should know full well that only a small percentage of views and impressions result in clickthrough and reads.

So what?

Baekdal told via email that it is well known that the highest performing content on Facebook is either feeding into people's prejudices, driving outrage, or is fun to watch. This is precisely the type of content that is poor at driving subscribers.

This is a catch 22 for news publishers. What makes people click a link is not what makes people take up a news subscription. What might compel people to subscribe is not really what people are looking for when they are scrolling through Facebook.

A look at the top 20 Facebook pages (still just 1.8 per cent of total views) is mostly made up of 'low-intent micro-moment' content, as Baekdal puts it best in his article: "pages with the type of posts where people mostly just look because they have a break and they are bored."

In other words, he tells us, the best content on Facebook is the type that isn't going to work for us in the press.

Top Pages on Facebook in the US by total US content viewers.

Have we got the wrong end of the stick?

So the question is: what sort of posting behaviour does the social media platform incentivise? And with that, what publishing ethics it encourages?

Facebook is trying to make changes that improve the user experience. Remember when Facebook made controversial algorithmic changes in 2018 to upserve posts from friends and family (at the expense of businesses, brands and media)? It is now looking to survey users in a bid to nullify negative experiences in the News Feed, after noticing that they were getting tired of political content and other posts which dampen their time on the platform. Even Facebook's Brown says: "We want the News Feed to provide more opportunities for meaningful interactions and reduce passive consumption of low-quality content."

But as Facebook continues focusing on becoming a positive platform for users, Baekdal says this will only make it harder for uncomfortable journalism to be included. The way things are going, news publishers need to be thinking carefully about what they are posting and what is positive for society.

"As the press, we need to realise that Facebook is not the right platform for a lot of the traditional hard news reporting that we do," explains Baekdal. "We need to step away from the idea that Facebook is where people get hard news."

Are memes the way forward?

Done well, Facebook can be a useful place for meaningful audience growth. Pink News has grown its page from 475k likes to 507k over the last year (since September 2020). But Mitchell revealed that it was stuck at 475k until February 2021, when a viral meme started to gather momentum.

As the press, we need to realise that Facebook is not the right platform for a lot of the traditional hard news reporting that we do.Thomas Baekdal

Their Facebook presence is now marked by a lot of emojis, quirky post captions, and a mixture of posts with and without links.

"Photo posts that do best tend to involve celebrities or entertainment, ideally a celebrity saying something outspoken in support of LGBT+ rights, or simply be very very funny and relatable," says Mitchell.

During her three years at BuzzFeed as the Scotland editor, she picked up a few tricks about the 'psychology of sharing'. The social media team is encouraged to say something about the quote in question, because it is a great chance to say something interesting, witty or relatable.

Pink News's most successful post to date with more than 400k reactions is a screenshot of an internet user (named only as Gengar622) coming out as gay 6 years after saying that he was straight in a post about Lady Gaga. The caption simple reads: "Congratulations Gengar622 [laughing emoji]."

Elsewhere, an old tweet from T-Pain in 2013 repurposed onto Facebook garnered nearly 275k reactions.

How is this journalism?

You may be thinking, why should a news organisation bother with jokes and memes? Constantly pumping out links is not going to magically result in high engagement. Facebook is looking for a variety of posts, some with links, some with your own images and videos. The bottom line is, without light-hearted memes, more serious news story links do not perform as well.

Links to Pink News stories go out regularly but they have captions oozing with charm and personality. A lot of thinking goes into the posting schedule as well. A sandwich of two big back-to-back posts go out at 11:50 pm at night and 7:50 am the next morning to generate momentum throughout the day.

"The late-night one will be usually funny, sometimes a bit 'rude'. Not really, but playing on LGBT+ culture and experiences, maybe a joke about Grindr for example," explains Mitchell.

"The morning post will be wholesome and positive, a tweet about someone coming out and their gran knitting them, say, a pansexual flag scarf. A happy start to the day. This gives us a nice boost."

Ecommerce posts and reshared links (Refinery29 and Bustle, where there is an agreement with them to share) tend to get low engagement, but one effective workaround is to share them within e-commerce groups to generate more interest and traffic.

Because of their negative nature, posts about violent crimes are not performing well on Facebook. But the need to report on hate crimes against the LGBT+ community takes editorial priority, so if it is has to, it will absorb the hit from the underperforming posts and rebalance it with a few high engagement posts.

Mitchell's final words of advice are to avoid clickbait words, prioritise human images over text and logos, avoid posting more than once an hour, and break up link posts with original videos and images.

What else is recommended?

Being a verified page on Facebook does not have any bearing on how much your content is shown on the platform. It is merely what it says on the tin; a verification that you are a legitimate publisher.

Facebook's Brown says that there are three ways news publishers can also improve their visibility on the platform.

The platform prioritises original reporting and those cited as the original source of a topic. But it is not just those first to the punch, the more extensive original reporting an article contains, the more distribution it will receive in News Feed.

Since 2016, Facebook has also had a ranking signal to predict what is most informative to people. "Informative stories" appear higher in their News Feed, so make sure your articles contain solid facts and findings.

And finally local news. If a story is from a publisher in your area, and you either follow the publisher's Page or your friend shares a story from that outlet, it might show up higher in News Feed.

This is also a useful checklist when posting, which helps Facebook’s reviewing systems to identify your content as 'news':

  • Is this piece of content reporting on timely events, current information, or ongoing investigations? Is it editorial or opinion?
  • Is this piece of content directly attributed to a cited author, journalist, or creator?
  • Does this piece of content cite sources for facts that are asserted?
  • Does this piece of content have editorial transparency? I.e, do the bylines have full names, credits, or a staff directory?
  • Does this piece of content have dates and/or timestamps?

Do not miss our next digital journalism conference Newsrewired, with four days of panels and workshops. Check out the full agenda and tickets

Free daily newsletter

If you like our news and feature articles, you can sign up to receive our free daily (Mon-Fri) email newsletter (mobile friendly).