By Mathew Ingram
May 18, 2016

Algorithmic filtering has been in the news lately, after reports that Facebook routinely fiddles with the site’s Trending Topics, and makes editorial judgements about what to include or exclude. Now, Snapchat is reportedly planning to use an algorithm to decide what to display in the app, which has become a hot platform for short-form video.

According to a report at Digiday, the video service is talking with publishing and advertising partners about its plans to use an algorithm to filter and rank content, something it has been working on since the beginning of the year. Currently, new Snapchat Stories are displayed in chronological order (although the service already ranks a user’s best friends using what it refers to as a “magical algorithm”).

“It’s going to be the same model Facebook has: It’s free for everybody to share content, but an algorithm will penalize some people and boost others,” a publishing-industry source reportedly told Digiday. “That’s why you don’t want to be beholden to any one of these platforms or you’re suddenly stuck when the game changes.”

That comment neatly sums up the downside that many media companies see in distributing their content through platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Since all these services use algorithms to determine what to show to users and when, it’s impossible to know who is going to see your article or video or photo. And even if plenty of people do, that could all change in an instant.

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Facebook came under fire last week for the behavior of some human editors who allegedly kept certain right-wing websites and links out of Trending Topics (something Facebook says it has a firm policy against). CEO Mark Zuckerberg met with a number of conservative leaders on Wednesday in an attempt to smooth the waters.

For many in the media industry, however, the big problem isn’t Facebook’s Trending Topics, but the social network’s main news feed. Not only are there issues around how users wind up perceiving the world as a result of this filtering, but the algorithm that controls the display of posts can have a huge effect on whether a media outlet’s content gets seen at all.

The kind of traffic that Facebook can produce means a lot to media companies that are scrambling to generate digital revenue—a group that even includes digital star BuzzFeed, which has pinned its hopes on a distributed strategy that pushes content out through dozens of social platforms and services. Being highlighted by the algorithm can make the difference between hitting your expected traffic and financial targets and missing them wildly.

At the moment, Facebook is trying to woo media companies to publish through its mobile-friendly Instant Articles feature, which makes pages load faster, and to host their video directly on the network. So it may be inclined the favor those links over content from companies that aren’t playing ball. But it could just as soon change its mind and start pushing traffic somewhere else.

Snapchat has doubled its daily video views since last year. Watch:

The risk for publishers is that Snapchat could do exactly the same thing with its service. And with more than 10 billion video views a day, it is almost as influential as Facebook, at least where video is concerned. Some publishers that distribute their content using Snapchat say their posts can get millions of views in a single day. Using an algorithmic filter could determine whose story goes viral and whose disappears without a trace.

Snapchat’s Discover feature—which is designed specifically for media partners such as BuzzFeed, CNN, Cosmopolitan and other brands—is already sorted by Snapchat. And it can drive significant amounts of engagement, to the point where Snapchat reportedly charges media companies to be part of the feature, over and above sharing in the ad revenue. BuzzFeed said recently that more than 20% of all its video views come from Snapchat.

For Snapchat, meanwhile, one of the benefits of an algorithmic feed is that it would let the company do the same thing that Facebook does, which is to charge advertisers and publishers extra to have their content appear higher or more often in the feed. On Facebook, this takes the form of “promoted posts” and other methods of advertising. Presumably, Snapchat could make use of similar mechanisms, and probably generate a substantial amount of revenue.

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