More and more people are turning to Facebook for news, and less and less are actually finding any. You can’t stop social media, so what can you do?
When we discuss Facebook or Twitter, we are likely to use either the term social network, or social media, to describe what we are talking about. These terms are closely related, in fact we use them as if they were interchangeable, but there is a distinction. Social network implies the connections to friends and relatives that we are able to make through Facebook, one of the main reasons people have Facebook, but the less important of the two terms. For it is social media that actually describes what makes us go back to Facebook over and over again, namely the content not only being produced, but being visibly consumed by our friends, colleagues and relatives. The person commenting, sharing or liking may be an old high-school friend, a coworker or a close relative, but whoever they are, at some point in our life we have felt close enough to them to become their Facebook-friend. And therefore, whatever they have found interesting and thought-provoking, we are more likely to feel the same way about, than if the post had been recommended to us by some unknown entity. This makes being on Facebook interesting, but it’s also interesting in regards to the way we consume news through the social media.
In 2015, the Pew Research Center conducted a survey on the evolving role of news on social media. Out of the 61% of American adults that have Facebook, about 40% stated Facebook to be their most important, or one of their most important sources for news. Looking at adults between the ages of 18–35, this number is even higher, at 50%. So we can see already there, that the younger the audience in question, the larger the amount of news they get from Facebook. But Facebook’s importance as a news source is not only growing amongst younger people. Compared to a similar survey by the Pew Research Center, conducted in 2013, practically every demographic shows a larger percentage of users referring to Facebook as their most, or one of their most important sources of news.
This evolving role of news on social media brings with it both problems and advantages, but let’s start with the problems. The way that news sites, generally, work nowadays, is that they try rob finance their online-services through ads. Some go for the subscription model, but this is not a model that concerns us when talking about social media. So in order to maximize the money made from ads, one needs to maximize the amounts of visitors on the site. This can be done in several ways, ranging from higher quality content to a phenomena known as „clickbait“. Clickbait means writing headlines that are either provocative, or in any other way intriguing enough for users to can’t help themselves from clicking them. And opting for clickbait, rather than trying to improve the number of readers by improving content has proven to be the winning strategy. If you compare the numbers of likes and share on practically any Buzzfeed article to any article shared online by the New York Times, it is not hard to come to the conclusion that stories about teens getting a heart transplant is what people want. So with Buzzed currently winning the battle for the attention of young readers on social media (and a great deal of companies following their example), there is a danger of people limiting themselves to these kind of news sources. And even their designated news service Buzzfeed News seems to be concentrating on statues that look like Darth Vader when it snows, and stories on parents „stealing“ their kids’ iPhones. Besides the possibility of disinformation, a dangerous aspect of getting your news from a clickbait-type source is that, due to their business model, the sources rarely give a moderate, „grey“ view, but often prefer to focus on either the black or the white.
But of course, it’s not all bad. During the Arab Spring, we saw the biggest advantage that social media news have over traditional news sources, namely the rapidness and authenticity with which a story can be delivered via Facebook or Twitter ´, especially the latter. Simply posting a video can lead to millions of people in other countries watching it, and making their voices heard in favor of trying to change the situation in the video’s country of origin. Still, how many of those videos actually make it to our front pages? Twitter is far better at this, as Twitter is less about the visible consumption of news in the form of likes and shares (yes, I’m aware of retweets), and more about the actual consumption. In other words, on Twitter, it often feels less like people are doing things to be seen doing them, but because they actually want to themselves.
It is going to be very interesting to see the future development of news on social media, because if there is one thing one can say with certainty, it is that the role of news there will continue to grow. How we choose to consume news will be our own choice, but the providers of the news will have a large part to play, in finding a way to make their services profitable, besides just the amount of clicks on a site. I believe that moving away from the click-model will be an important, and necessary step to take, in order for non-speculative news sites to survive and thrive.