Some tech sites have reported that this feature might eventually be rolled out to Facebook users in the rest of the world, too. But of course no one really has any way of knowing what the social media company is up to. And we don’t have any way to hold it accountable, either, aside from calling it out publicly. Maybe that’s why it has chosen to experiment with this new feature in small countries far removed from the concerns of most Americans.
But for us, changes like this can be disastrous. Attracting viewers to a story relies, above all, on making the process as simple as possible. Even one extra click can make a world of difference. This is an existential threat, not only to my organization and others like it but also to the ability of citizens in all of the countries subject to Facebook’s experimentation to discover the truth about their societies and their leaders.
Serbia is a perfect example of why the political context of Facebook’s experimentation matters. Serbia escaped the dictatorship of Slobodan Milosevic in 2000, but it hasn’t developed into a fully functioning democracy. One party, led by President Aleksandar Vucic, controls not only the Parliament but also the whole political system. Our country has no tradition of checks and balances. Mr. Vucic now presents himself as progressive and pro-European, but as minister of information in the Milosevic government, he was responsible for censoring news coverage.
Today, censorship in Serbia takes a softer form. Pliant outlets loyal to the government receive preferential treatment and better funding from local and central budgets. Those that stray out of line find themselves receiving unexpected visits from the tax inspectors.
This isn’t an easy place to be an independent journalist. Since 2015, my investigative nonprofit, KRIK, has covered stories the mainstream media won’t touch. In return, we have been spied on and threatened, and have had lurid fabrications about our private lives splashed on the front page of national tabloids.
Last year, KRIK published an investigation showing that when he was a young surgeon, Zlatibor Loncar, who is now minister of health, had been contracted by a gang to kill one of its enemies, according to court testimony by protected witnesses. You’d think the story of a future minister administering poison through an IV would make a splash — but the mainstream outlets ignored it.
Going to KRIK’s website is…