In January 2018 Facebook announced changes in its News Feed algorithm designed to curb the spread of “fake news” by prioritizing personal content at the expense of public content from businesses, brands and media. Considering that more and more people access news through social media platforms, Facebook’s measures have had a significant impact on publishers, sometimes cutting up to 50 percent of their organic reach. After observing that the number of Facebook comments and likes for the ten biggest Brazilian newspapers fell 32% for 12 months, Brazil’s biggest newspaper Folha de S Paulo even pulled its content from the social media giant as a form of protest. Data scientists have emphasized that there are important differences between how various countries and types of media experience such a big policy change with tabloids often hit the hardest. However, attention usually focuses on the big players who can make themselves heard. We know much less about how smaller more peripheral publishers are dealing with the current situation.
Facebook’s algorithm changes have strongly affected citizen media in Bulgaria, a country notoriously blighted by extreme ownership concentration, censorship, intimidation of journalists and increasing tabloidization. Bulgaria, the country which currently holds the EU Presidency, has fallen in Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom ranking to 111th place – after Gabon, Macedonia and Bolivia. It is the country with the lowest media freedom rank in the EU and in the Balkans. The low level of trust in media makes Bulgarian citizens easy prey for “fake” and instrumental news and conspiracy theories parading as alternative to mainstream media. In this context, Facebook’s algorithm changes paradoxically threaten the few independent and high quality outlets in the country.