In testimony to the US Senate in August, Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen proposed a regulatory reform that would make Facebook (and perhaps all social networks) responsible for any content they amplified using an algorithm. While this may seem a reasonable and nuanced approach, the impact on social media marketing would be profound. In fact, it would likely be the single most significant change we’ve seen at our social media agency in over a decade. 

What if the Facebook Algorithm Went Away?

Below I’ve outlined the possible, but very likely, ramifications we’d see if the Facebook algorithm were to cease to exist.

Some Background

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 says that, “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” In other words, if you go on Facebook and libel someone, that individual can sue you for libel and receive damages if they prevail. But they cannot sue Facebook as Facebook didn’t libel you even if they hosted the words that did.

This is the key protection that allows all sorts of publishers to host comments and postings from millions of users. Without this protection, comments would have to be moderated at best, but in all likelihood would be eliminated. Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and the comments section on websites would not exist as they do today. The risk would be simply too great. 

That’s why calls to eliminate Section 230 entirely during the 2020 US presidential election were never taken particularly seriously. But making changes to it is open for debate. 

Are Algorithms Facebook’s “Original Sin”? 

When Facebook originally released the news feed, content was shared sequentially. Users would see what their friends shared in the order it was shared. But Facebook quickly realized they could increase engagement by elevating popular posts so they would be seen by more people. To determine which posts were likely to be enjoyed by each individual, Facebook rolled out Edgerank, its first algorithm. It used a combination of affinity (how much you interacted with a person or page), recency (how new the post was), and edge weight (which types of content you liked the most, whether that was video, text, or photos). 

Edgerank is long since gone, replaced by an even more complicated algorithm that, according to the whistleblower at least, Facebook can’t even control. It apparently shared fake vaccine information even when the company tried to tamp it down. It caused political parties to share their most extreme positions to get anyone to see their content and it repeatedly surfaces that post from your annoying relative who believes in conspiracy theories. 

What Would an Algorithm-free Facebook Look Like to Social Media Marketers? 

This is hard to wrap one’s brain around. Organic reach is strongly correlated with post performance. In other words, if a brand creates a post that gets high engagement (likes/comments/shares/saves/tap backs/video views, etc.) it gets served up the algorithm more often, thereby reaching more people and getting a chance for more engagement. When this happens an impressive amount to a post, we say it has gone viral. 

Similar Reach For Every Post? 

On the downside, then, brands would likely see roughly the same number of people exposed to all their organic social content regardless of whether that content was any good. While a brand would still be able to measure engagement rate or link clicks or similar data as a proxy for post quality, there would be no reward of extra reach as a result. This would significantly discourage organic posting even more than today. 

Increased Organic Reach? 

On the positive side, one of the impacts of the current Facebook algorithm is that the average large brand page reaches only about 2% of their followers with a given post. The algorithm has “turned down” brand reach from what had been 16%. If the algorithm were to cease to exist, a brand’s follower count would suddenly matter again and, I would think, the reach of posts would increase potentially dramatically. This would give brands a reason to pursue followers again and to post organically. 

Would Unfollows Increase? 

Currently, the algorithm is rarely showing content to unengaged fans. If that throttle were to be eliminated, I would expect that suddenly people would see content from fan pages they liked 5-10 years ago. If people suddenly got a number of posts from Skype, a fading brand with 27 million fans, the number of unfollows would naturally skyrocket. We can logically expect brands to lose a meaningful percentage of their fans, particularly if those first few “unfiltered” posts didn’t resonate. 

These are just a few of the likely ramifications to social media marketers if the proposal to penalize Facebook for using an algorithm to sort posts is put into play. While generally I would hope that regulators would use a more sophisticated method to rein in the issues at Facebook, the questions coming from our elected officials so far indicate that they have little idea how social networks actually operate in the real world.

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