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Facebook’s Newsfeed Algorithm Will Negatively Impact Government

Efforts to shake up the amount of commercial content on the popular social media platform are affecting government agencies that use it as a way to reach their constituents.

Earlier this month, Facebook announced that it would change users’ newsfeeds in what has caused a huge shift in government social media professionals’ ability to communicate with their constituents.

Mark Zuckerberg announced in a personal blog that the company would change the algorithm that guides newsfeeds to focus more on posts from friends and families, rather than allowing commercial posts to dominate. 

“We've gotten feedback from our community that public content — posts from businesses, brands and media — is crowding out the personal moments that lead us to connect more with each other,” he said. “The first changes you'll see will be in news feed, where you can expect to see more from your friends, family and groups.”

User posts have been on the decline for the social media platform, according to USA Todayand teen users have been migrating to the likes of Snapchat and Instagram in large numbers. The shift is seen by some as a means of reducing sponsored content to force businesses, brands and media to buy more advertising on the platform.

But beyond the speculation about what is driving the change, government entities, which have been swept into the category of private business, have seen a real drop in social engagement — a drop they felt coming in advance of Zuckerberg’s announcement.

“After the new year, we saw a decline,” Bronlea Mishler, the communications coordinator for Skagit County, Wash., said. 

Mishler, the sole media engagement employee in the rural county, said the change was discouraging. “Our followers total about 1,700, between 3 and 600 people would see the post and 3 to 7 would engage,” she said. After Jan. 1, she said, her posts are being seen by fewer than 100 people.

Mishler said the newsfeed changes could cause a problem when it comes to trying to reach the public during an emergency situation.

“Facebook and government must get together on crises and make sure the information that is offered to the public is vetted,” she said. 

Other jurisdictions are also concerned about how they will be able to communicate through Facebook if they have an emergency. The Mountain View, Calif., Police Department has also seen a dip in post views and is looking to other platforms to take up some of the slack.

“We have seen a great reduction” in our numbers, said Katie Nelson, the department’s social media and public relations coordinator. It is important that the police department be able to communicate in an emergency. “I need to reach residents immediately,” she added.

In the middle of last year, social media efforts had seen a steady increase in user follows, which reached a high of 18,000 followers. The police department account was used to seeing a steady increase, she said, that has since flatlined. “This will affect first responders. I am not sure if [Facebook] understands the end game.”

And while the department has not left Facebook, it has looked at other avenues for its communication needs. “We are not sitting around,” she said. “We have moved onto Nextdoor where I can reach a larger number of residents immediately.”

“Nextdoor is a great way to connect with residents,” she said, noting a 79 percent increase. “Our reception has been incredible."

The city also uses Snapchat to communicate with younger residents. “You wouldn’t think that they would follow the police department, but we have 450 followers," she said.

Not only are government social media experts turning to different platforms, they are creatively coming up with ways to defeat the limiting Facebook algorithm.

Concerns about decreased reach on Facebook will lead to more experimentation by government account managers, said Kristy Dalton, GT columnist and CEO of Government Social Media, an organization dedicated to social media training and best practices.

“I think you will see government explore other social networks,” she said. “Agencies using Nextdoor will find they get greater reach than they did on Facebook.”

“You might hear they are abandoning Facebook, but I don’t think they would do that,” she said. “They do not want to appear out of touch.”

The city of Boca Raton is looking at the Facebook newsfeed changes as “an opportunity to push some innovation and creativity, as well as sharing best practices,” said Communications and Digital Media Coordinator Mary McGuire. She manages the city’s main social media platforms and provides oversight, training and support for more than 30 city staff members. She thinks it's a bit too soon to know the effects of the changes.

“As a government agency, we have a responsibility to share information regarding city meetings, business and topics,” she said. “Sometimes these types of posts won’t necessarily drive engagement, but the information is important.”

Most agencies say they would like to engage with Facebook about the newsfeed changes. The Mountain View Police Department said Facebook should sit down with local Silicon Valley government agencies and gain an understanding of how they use the platform.  

“We need to have an honest, open and fair dialog about these changes," Nelson said. “They need to understand how the changes affect government.”

And while McGuire sees some success in the creative use of engagement to circumvent Facebook’s algorithm, she agrees that there is a need for dialog with the company. “Facebook already recognizes the unique niche that government and public safety have on their platform,” she said. “But, there are definitely opportunities where Facebook can continue to assist in our work to reach our residents and inform them in a timely manner.”

So far, Facebook hasn’t indicated an interest in sitting down with anyone to get feedback. “We have great connections on Facebook,” Dalton said. “But so far, when we have asked questions about the newsfeed change, we only get a stock answer.”

Dalton hopes that government pages can be reclassified to resolve the issue.

Editor’s note: Adjustments were made to clarify Mary McGuire’s position with the city of Boca Raton. 

Elizabeth Zima is a former staff writer for Government Technology. She has written in depth on topics including health care, clinical science, physician relations and hospital communications.