We still haven’t cracked the code

They are Syria CampaignBy Paolo Ganino @PaoloGanino, Digital and Social Media Officer, European External Action Service, @eu_eeas

Making New Year’s resolutions is a fairly common practice but sticking to them is a more difficult challenge.

Since 2009, Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg – the man single-handedly responsible for adding a new digital dimension to the verb ‘to share’ – has been making his personal challenges public (or sharing them) at the beginning of each year.

Last year, Zuckerberg announced he wanted to (or rather had to) “fix Facebook”. A few days later he told the world how he would do it: Facebook would start prioritising “meaningful social interactions” over other content. Facebook’s algorithm (the system that decides what you see and what you don’t see on your news feed) had already started doing this a while back – populating your screens with memes from friends rather than news stories or any content produced by Pages.

For my team, or anyone else working in digital diplomacy and media, this caused a big headache. A couple of years back, so many media companies and institutions like ours had jumped on the bandwagon of the so-called ‘pivot to video’. We used social videos linked to news hooks to promote our main priorities such as human rights and multilateralism. Their current organic reach makes the effort to produce them hardly justifiable. Some social media native outlets even shut down as a consequence of this change.

At the European External Action Service, we manage one central Facebook account and coordinate the work of over a hundred pages managed by our delegations around the world, producing their own local content and multiplying relevant messages coming from Brussels.

Over the years, we have managed to build a diverse audience of people interested in the work of the European Union across the globe. On Twitter, our work is more focused on traditional digital diplomacy efforts, press outreach and the work of Federica Mogherini – the European Union’s foreign policy chief.

Facebook has always required a different type of content, inescapably the content we produce for and share on the platform is meant for a broader audience that goes beyond the world of diplomacy. And what we have on offer is rather unique, as there is no other institutional player communicating on EU foreign policy as such. When from one day to another, the organic reach of our pages was decimated, we knew it was time to reconsider our strategy. Just over a year later, we still haven’t cracked the code but trial and error has helped us realise that there is little we can do to get around the restrictions set by the algorithm.

Europeans Making a Difference CampaignThat is one of the reasons why we have decided to shift to a more campaign oriented approach. In the past few months, we have run three major and very diverse video campaigns: one on Human Rights Defenders to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; “Europeans Making a Difference”, a campaign that shows the Western Balkans’ most successful face as part of the European family, through profiling talents from the region; and “They are Syria”, a campaign that accompanied the 3rd Brussels conference on “Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region”.

In building an audience for each campaign, Facebook still played a central role. In the social platforms pool, it still allows us to target and reach the largest audience possible, even if regrettably this is no longer possible through organic means. At the end of a major campaign, some in those audiences stick with your page. In the case of the Western Balkans, after the end of the campaign we discovered that the organic reach was much higher than expected for posts related to the region. A video focusing on the resolution of the name dispute between North Macedonia and Greece was particularly successful without the need for paid promotion.

Yet, even this approach may not prove sustainable. After taking action in the US, the UK, Ukraine and India, Facebook is about to roll out new rules regarding political advertising in the European Union and elsewhere.

Last year, the tech giant signed up to the EU Commission’s Code of Practice against disinformation, a self-regulatory platform. While the EU moves forward in tackling disinformation – an action plan was released in December and its implementation is ongoing – we expect Facebook to make a bigger effort to fully implement the Code of Practice.

If rumours are confirmed their new rules about political ads will make it difficult for European and international institutions to roll out information campaigns. And this would force us to look beyond Facebook and focus on how to maximise our impact elsewhere.