Facebook Is Throttling Nonprofits and Activists

B. Traven

Facebook Is Throttling Nonprofits and Activists

So far coverage of Facebook’s plan to squeeze the organic reach of Pages has focused on its impact on “brands” that spam us with ads and promotions. But nonprofits, activists, and advocacy groups with much fewer resources (and no ad budgets) are also being hugely affected. It’s starting to look like Facebook is willing to strangle public discourse on the platform in an attempt to wring out a few extra dollars for its new shareholders.

Put simply, “organic reach” is the number of people who potentially could see any given Facebook post in their newsfeed. Long gone are the days when Facebook would simply show you everything that happened in your network in strict chronological order. Instead, algorithms filter the flood of updates, posts, photos, and stories down to the few that they calculate you would be most interested in. (Many people would agree that these algorithms are not very good, which is why Facebook is putting so much effort into refining them.) This means that even if I have, say, 400 friends, only a dozen or so might actually see any given thing I post.

One way to measure your reach, then, is as the percentage of your total followers who (potentially) see each of your posts. This is the ratio that Facebook has more-or-less publicly admitted it is ramping down to a target range of 1-2% for Pages. In other words, even if an organization’s Page has 10,000 followers, any given item they post might only reach 100-200 of them. In the case of my organization, that ratio is already down from an average of nearly 20% in 2012 to less than 5% today—a 75% reduction.

Another way of looking at it is in terms of what our reach would have been if Facebook hadn’t shifted the goalposts. From February to October 2012 our posts reached about 18% of our followers, on average [see graph above]. If that percentage had stayed the same as our followers grew over the past two years, then each item we posted today would theoretically reach about 1,000 people.

The actual average for the second week of April? 79.

Facebook Is Throttling Nonprofits and Activists

Lots of people have no problem with making Mountain Dew or Sony pay for what was previously free advertising—never mind that Facebook had already encourage them to pay for more likes with the promise that they would be able to broadcast to those followers for free. Nobody needs to shed a tear for the poor souls at Proctor & Gamble who have been forced to rejigger some small piece of their multibillion dollar advertising budget.

But Facebook has also become a new kind of platform for political and social advocacy. We may scoff at overblown “saving the world” rhetoric when it comes from Silicon Valley execs, but in places like Pakistan (not to mention in Tahrir Square or the Maidan) the idea of social media as an open marketplace of social and political ideas is taken quite seriously. That all goes away if nobody can even see your posts.

In the more prosaic world of nonprofits, Facebook has also become a crucial outreach tool and an effective way to stay in touch with supporters and partners. Many organizations funded by government or foundation grants are not even legally allowed to spend that money on advertising—and many more simply don’t have the budget for it regardless.

Facebook urgently needs to address the impact that its algorithm changes are having on nonprofits, NGOs, civil society, and political activists—especially those in developing countries, who are never going to be able to “pay to play” and for whom Facebook is one of the few really effective ways to get a message out to a wide audience without government control or censorship.

Improving the quality of posts on Facebook is a laudable goal, but it must be done in a transparent manner. For all the gripes people have about Google and their search algorithm, they are very clear about what they consider “quality” content and even provide free tools to help ensure pages have what their robots like to see. An algorithm change that results in a huge swath of legitimate, non-spam users losing 75% of their reach should not be deployed in secret.

In the meantime, there are still some social networks that don’t presume to know what you want to see in your timeline and will blast every one of your messages to every one of your followers. At least for now. Twitter just went public last November and will need to show a profit someday.

B. Traven is a pseudonym. He runs social media for a mid-sized international NGO in Washington, D.C.



Does It Matter That the Venezuelan Opposition Is Funded by the US?

BLOGGER COMMENT:  The US has never been able to tolerate alternative economic systems in the Americas. We would rather, for example, support a fascist General Pinochet than a socialist Allende. In Venezuela we support return of corporate control to the oil business. With us, the US, it’s always about the money, not the people.

By Ray Downs

Protesters march against the government in Caracas, Venezuela, on February 15. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

In the summer of 2007, the vehemently pro–Hugo Chávez journalist and lawyer Eva Golinger got on Venezuelan state TV and, with the help of a flow chart hand-drawn on flimsy poster board, called out several fellow journalists who had allegedly accepted US funding to help bring down the country’s famously left-wing, anti-American president.

“These journalists are destabalizing agents,” Golinger said, and explained that that they had participated in programs paid for by the US that were designed to promote a pro-American agenda, the goal of which was to create anti-socialist sentiment in Venezuela.

The accusation didn’t cause the kind of uproar Golinger was hoping for. The journalists were briefly investigated by a government committee, but that prompted an immediate public outcry—in fact, many Chavistas rejected such McCarthy-like tactics, claiming they made them look bad.

The incident did cause the US Embassy in Caracas some concern, however. In a cable released by Wikileaks titled “IV Participants and USAID Partners Outed, Again” that describes Golinger’s TV appearance and the aftermath, an embassy official wrote that people were becoming wary of getting involved with any enterprise funded by the US. “It is particularly hard to persuade Chávez supporters to participate in a program they perceived as potentially career-ending,” the official wrote. In other words, though Golinger embarrassed herself with her shit-stirring, the US was really trying to bring down Chávez by funneling money to his opponents.

Since then, the US has continued its longstanding practice of funding programs that it often claims are aimed at promoting fair elections and human rights, but also strengthen Venezuelan opposition groups—and this money may be influencing the ongoing protests that have helped put the country in a political crisis.

These programs have several names and objectives. Some have clearly benevolent goals; one is targeted at discouraging violence against women, for instance. But other US efforts in Venezuela are unabashedly political, such as a 2004 USAID program that, according to a Wikileaks cable, would spend $450,000 to “provide training to political parties on the design, planning, and execution of electoral campaigns.” The program would also create “campaign training schools” that would recruit campaign managers and emphasize “the development of viable campaign strategies and effectively communicating party platforms to voters.”

Interestingly, it’s illegal for a US political party or candidate to accept funding from any “foreign national,” which includes individuals, corporations, and governments. Venezuela passed a similar law in 2010, but this is easily circumvented by channeling the money through NGOs.

It’s difficult to determine exactly how much money the US has spent on these political programs in Venezuela since Chávez was first elected in 1998, but some estimates put the figure around $50 to $60 million. This year alone, President Obama earmarked $5 million to “support political competition-building efforts” in Venezuela.

It’s understandable, then, that some critics of Venezuela’s opposition have argued that the protests are in part due to US meddling.

“There’s absolutely some organic movement against the government. There are concerns about crime and other things,” said Roberto Lovato, a journalist who has covered the drug war and social movements in Latin America. “But if you don’t factor in the millions of dollars that’s been spent on destabilizing the government and prop up opposition leaders, it’s not the whole story.”

Lovato added that this top-down funding of a protest movement is similar to how the American Tea Party claims to be a grassroots mobilization of everyday people but is largely bankrolled by a few wealthy individuals, such as the billionaire Koch brothers.

Although there are disagreements about the root causes for the high crime, goods shortages, and political repression that’s fueling the demonstrations against President Nicolas Maduro, nobody is denying the pain Venezuelans are suffering as a result. But there are undoubtedly a lot of international interests at stake here, and both wealthy people in Venezuela and multinational corporations would be happy to see, for instance, the privatization of the country’s oil industry.

“This is not necessarily a case of the US being a puppet-master and telling the opposition what to do, but the US government does want to remove the Maduro government from power just like they wanted to do with Chávez,” said George Ciccariello-Maher, a professor at Drexel University and author of a book about Chávez. “You also have a lot of rich businessmen in Venezuela who have put money behind the opposition. But their interest is not only political—they want to get their hands on that oil money.”

There’s no question that many of Maduro’s opponents are wealthy and come from elite families that have significant ties to corporate interests and have long opposed the Chavista government. One example is jailed opposition leader Leopoldo López, who comes from a wealthy Venezuelan family, was educated at Harvard, is cousins with the owner of the largest food company in Venezuela, and whose mother is the vice president of corporate affairs at the Cisneros Group, the largest media conglomerate in Latin America. (Billionaire Gustavo Cisneros, the company’s founder, is a fierce critic of Chavismo who is also close to the US government; a Wikileaks cable from 2004 describes a meeting he had with the US ambassador to discuss ways to eventually remove Chávez from power.)

So yes, the opposition is made up of political parties that have received extensive US funding and is led by the well-connected López. Does that mean the protests aren’t about helping the poor and instead only serve the interests of the US and wealthy Venezuelans?

One of the directors of Lopez’s political party, Voluntad Popular (“Popular Will”), is Juan Andrés Mejía, a 27-year-old activist who has been working with Lopez since 2009 and is now pursuing a master’s at Harvard. He admits that the bulk of the opposition protesters are from the middle and upper classes and are led by Venezuela’s elite, but he claims that support among the poor is growing.

“What Chávez did right was give the poor a voice. Before 1999, they didn’t have that,” Mejía said, referring to the year Chávez came to power. “But the opposition leaders today don’t agree with the [pre-Chávez government], so that won’t change. And it’s true that a lot of the poor still support the government, but that is changing because the current government’s policies are causing problems for everyone.”

As for the US funding, Mejía thinks it shouldn’t matter.

“As long as it’s not illegal, if another country wants to help us make elections more transparent and help strengthen a political party, I don’t see what’s wrong with that,” he said. “Besides, the Chavistas have Cubans and Russians on their side.”

And although Voluntad Popular is often said to be the most right-wing and capitalistic of Venezuela’s opposition parties, Mejia balks at the description. All they want to do is open up the markets in Venezuela, which will help the poor, he says.

“Private investment is essential to foster the Venezuelan economy,” he said, “but we do not think that private investment will, on its own, be sufficient to make people progress.”

Opposition parties like Voluntad Popular want a drastically different economic model than what Venezuela currently has. But Mejía told me that they don’t want to completely eradicate the socialist element from Venezuelan government. Mejía says they’d still use oil money to provide social programs for the poor as the current government does, but they’d also look at doing something similar to what Norway has done with its oil profits and invest in stocks to create a government-run pension fund for the people.

But however things turn out in Venezuela, there’s no question that the socialist government has been weakened and corporate have interests received a boost—which, fairly clearly, has been the point of the US’s funding programs all along.