The Seven Words We Can’t Say on Facebook

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Monday, June 11, 2018, 10:39 am
Alice Dreger, Publisher

No, they’re not the words you are thinking. I can’t tell you what they are yet. Hang on. We have to get through this first paragraph. After we get through this first paragraph, then I can tell you.

Actually, it might be safest to go one more paragraph. Why? Because if we use any of those seven words in the headline, or the summary of this article, or the first few lines, then you may never see this post.

It’s probably safe now. So, here are the seven words: vote, elect, ballot, propose, approve, decide, polls. Words with the same roots are also a problem: voter, election, proposal, decided.

Right now, in light of international criticism over allowing the promotion of “fake news,” Facebook has decided to de-emphasize news in users’ feeds. That has made it much harder for us to get our news reports into your feed without us paying to “boost” a news post. Basically, this means we pay Facebook a small sum to push a particular article out to our readers on Facebook.

Below you see a photo I took of a Facebook ad at a Chicago bus stop in April. You can see what it says: “Fake accounts are not your friends. Facebook is changing so you can see more from your friends, and less of the stuff that gets in the way.”

According to Facebook’s current algorithms, news – including the kind we provide to you – is “stuff that gets in the way.” Facebook doesn’t make it easy for our news to find its way into your feed. So, we are spending about $600 a month to push our stories out to Facebook readers via paid “boosts.”

You might think we shouldn’t do this, but the truth is that over 50% of our readership comes via local people on Facebook, and if we didn’t use Facebook in this way, our readership would shrink and we would be failing at our mission. We also couldn’t raise enough money to keep going, because a lot of our donors learn via Facebook that we need funds to operate.

But the problem has gotten much worse since April. Now Facebook has decided it wants to avoid promoting misleading political advertising. Rather than having humans scan boost requests to see what is and is not political advertising, Facebook has apparently set its algorithms to stop us from boosting any news items with the seven words (or versions of the seven words) in the title: vote, elect, ballot, propose, approve, decide, polls.

We spent a ridiculous amount of time this weekend trying to figure out how we could put a headline on today’s lead article – ELi’s voter guide to the August 7 tax proposal – that didn’t have the words vote, voter, proposal, ballot, or election in it. We finally gave up and decided to post it with a logical headline.

Facebook rejected the boost. Our Managing Editor Ann Nichols appealed the rejection. The appeal was rejected.

So, Ann asked me to write this post to tell you all about this craziness. She said, “Create a Trojan horse article so people will read it and find out about the other article.”

This all seems a little ridiculous to us. But it is our current reality. In the last week, we also had two other articles rejected for boosting because the Facebook bot decided they were political advertising.

The first was our Ask Eli by Thomas Baumann: “What Is a ‘Road Diet’ and Does It Make EL Safer?” This article dared to have this opening line in its social media summary: “East Lansing’s City Council recently approved another section of Harrison Road for a ‘road diet.’” No, no, no – can’t say “Council approved”!

The second was Andrew Graham’s report, “In 4-1 Vote, Council Reverses Decision to De-Fund Human Services Groups.” You can figure out why that headline irritated the bot.

Even before this “political advertising” prohibition showed up to get in the way of our attempts to bring you legitimate (nonpartisan!) local news, Facebook’s bots were delaying posts when we reported on things like racism or guns.

Facebook’s bot really didn’t like our headline “Gunfire Exchanged at Hookah Lounge, Suspect Taken In,” because that was interpreted as promoting guns and tobacco. The boost on that article was delayed about 24 hours. Our follow-up report, “Downtown Lounge Connected to 3 Gun Incidents in 10 Days” had the word “gun” in it but we were careful to skip the word “hookah” lest the bot accuse us of promoting tobacco products.

Even before all this, we discovered that Facebook would reject or delay our boosts if a lead photo had words in it. Apparently the bot thought we were cheating and promoting retail deals when we had a photo with words in it.

So ELi’s Managing Editor Ann Nichols has had to make sure we always lead with a photo that doesn’t have words. This meant we cannot put up a lead photo of City Hall if it has the “City Hall” sign in the image, and we cannot show photos of our elementary schools if their names are visible in the image.

We are operating now as if Facebook is an editor at ELi – an editor that doesn’t believe in our mission and that half the time feels high or distracted by a bad breakup. We could decide “We don’t want to play in your sandbox, Facebook,” and just give up, but again, we’d lose about half our readership—and donors, and therefore could not bring the other half the news they want us to produce.

We are not alone in having this problem. The discussion group of the Institute for Nonprofit News (of which ELi is a proud member) has this as its Number 1 issue right now. We are not alone. But we are stuck.

While we hope things get better, there are two things you can do to help if you read ELi through Facebook and you want to see reports like the important one from this morning about the income tax vote:

  1. Sign up for our free email updates about new posts. This allows us to reach around Facebook to reach you.
  2. Go to ELi’s Facebook page. Then click “follow” near the cover photo. Then hover over “Following” or “liked” near their cover photo. Select “See First.”

We would appreciate if you would also ask your neighbors to do the same two things. This will maximize the chances that we can get important news out to you about this election and everything else in this city, and will reduce the odds we end up every morning using some of the seven words George Carlin named.

And if you haven’t donated lately, please do so today to support this fantastic team of public service reporters. Most of the money you donate doesn’t go to Facebook. The great majority (over 80%) goes to paying local people to bring you real news, as you can see from our transparency reports of our work in May, April, March, February, and January.

Thank you.

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