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    Test countries for Facebook warn of risks

    Matt Rourke/Associated Press/File

    SAN FRANCISCO — One morning in October, the editors of Página Siete, Bolivia’s third-largest news site, noticed that traffic to their outlet coming from Facebook was plummeting.

    The publication had recently been hit by cyberattacks, and editors feared it was being targeted by hackers loyal to the government of President Evo Morales.

    But it wasn’t the government’s fault. It was Facebook’s.

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    The Silicon Valley company was testing a new version of its hugely popular News Feed, peeling off professional news sites from what people normally see and relegating them to a new section of Facebook called Explore. Like it or not, Bolivia had become a guinea pig in the company’s continual quest to reinvent itself.

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    As Facebook updates and tweaks its service in order to keep users glued to their screens, countries such as Bolivia are ideal testing grounds thanks to their growing, Internet-savvy populations.

    But these changes can have significant consequences, such as limiting the audience for nongovernmental news sources and — surprisingly — amplifying the impact of fabricated and sensational stories.

    On Thursday, Facebook announced plans to make similar changes to its News Feed around the world. The company said it was trying to increase “meaningful interaction” on its site by drawing attention to content from family and friends while deemphasizing content from brands and publishers, including The New York Times.

    The changes are being made as the company is embroiled in a larger debate over its role in spreading fake news and misinformation aimed at influencing elections in the United States and other nations.

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    Facebook said these News Feed modifications were not identical to those introduced in fall in six countries through its Explore program, but both alterations favor posts from friends and family over professional news sites.

    And what happened in those countries illustrates the unintended consequences of such a change in an online service that now has a global reach of more than 2 billion people a month.

    In Slovakia, where right-wing nationalists took nearly 10 percent of Parliament in 2016, publishers said the changes had actually helped promote fake news. With official news organizations forced to spend money to place themselves in the News Feed, it is now up to users to share information.

    “People usually don’t share boring news with boring facts,” said Filip Struharik, the social media editor of Denník N, a Slovakian subscription news site that saw a 30 percent drop in Facebook engagement after the changes. Struharik, who has been cataloging the effects of Facebook Explore through a monthly tally, has noted a steady rise in engagement on sites that publish fake or sensationalist news.

    A bogus news story that spread in December illustrates the problem, Struharik said. The story claimed that a Muslim man had thanked a good Samaritan for returning his lost wallet and had warned the Samaritan of a terrorist attack that was planned at a Christmas market.

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    The fabricated story circulated so widely that the local police issued a statement saying it wasn’t true. But when the police went to issue the warning on Facebook, they found that the message — unlike the fake news story they meant to combat — could no longer appear on News Feed because it came from an official account.

    A Slovakian editor has noted a steady rise in engagement on sites that publish fake or sensationalist news.

    Facebook explained its goals for the Explore program in Slovakia, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Bolivia, Guatemala, and Serbia in a blog post in October.

    “The goal of this test is to understand if people prefer to have separate places for personal and public content,” wrote Adam Mosseri, head of Facebook’s News Feed. “There is no current plan to roll this out beyond these test countries.”

    In Bolivia, the alterations to the News Feed also occurred in a country where the government and the press have found themselves at odds, with news sites such as Página Siete frequently criticizing Morales, a left-wing populist who has accumulated enormous power since being elected president in 2006.

    “We became the only media to take on the government,” said Rodolfo Huallpa, the web editor of Página Siete. Half the site’s traffic came from social media, with the lion’s share of that from Facebook, he said. Since Explore was introduced, overall web traffic to the site has dropped 20 percent.