More Americans consume news on Facebook than ever before. Uh oh
I hope you like polarizing discourse, factual inaccuracies, and poorly-sourced memes.
That’s because, according to a new study by Pew, more Americans now use Facebook to find and discuss news than ever before.
Between 2013 and 2015, the percentage of U.S. Facebook users who looked to the platform as a source for news rose from 47 percent to 63 percent. And because the number of Facebook users in the U.S. – along with the amount of time each spends on the service -- hasn’t changed much over the past two years, this increase in news consumption reflects significant shifts to how users, publishers, and Facebook’s own algorithms behave on the site.
None of this should come as a big surprise. After four consecutive year-on-year increases, Facebook now drives nearly one-fourth of all pageviews on the web, according to Shareaholic, as the platform is poised to surpass organic Google searches as the number one referrer of traffic to webpages. As for news content specifically, the number of Facebook likes, comments, and shares pertaining to news stories rose 25 percent over a six-month period last year.
Facebook is embracing wholeheartedly its expanded role in the news ecosystem, encouraging publishers to host content directly on Facebook through its Instant Articles feature, and giving users more control in filtering the trending news topics they see on their News Feeds.
But despite the obviousness and inevitability of Facebook’s ascent as a news source, it bears asking: Has this shift made users less informed?
That’s tough to measure. Each user’s experience with Facebook is unique, by design. And before casting aspersions at Facebook for dumbing down America, consider that an even greater percentage of the country – 55 percent -- describe television as their “main source of news,” with shamelessly biased FOX News and depressingly bland CNN taking the top two slots.
Nevertheless, there are more than a few reasons why Facebook’s rapid growth as a dominant news platform is a major cause for concern among those who still value the Fourth Estate.
To begin with, when we describe Facebook as a source for news, it’s important to distinguish what we mean by “news.” For the purposes of its report, Pew defines “news” as “events and issues outside the realm of friends and family.”
Fair enough. But that doesn’t mean everyone on Facebook is reading about the Iran nuclear deal. It shouldn’t come as much of a shock that “Entertainment” stories were viewed more often by Pew’s respondents than any other vertical. This is hardly unique to Facebook or the year 2015: I imagine that in the 1940s, more people bought magazines and newspapers to read about Elizabeth Taylor than to read about European post-war recovery solutions.
But consider the report I cited above, which claims that “people are sharing more news than ever before on Facebook.” It certainly sounds like good news for journalism. But a closer examination of the data reveals that the stories which collected the highest number of shares -- and were therefore most responsible for driving the growth of “news” shares on Facebook -- were largely comprised of Buzzfeed quizzes and viral videos.
Maybe that’s the reason so many users flock to Facebook for “news.” They come expecting disasters, atrocities, and corruption, and leave with smiles on their faces after watching a cat dressed like a shark chase around a dog dressed like a turtle.
And that’s totally okay, as long as we state clearly what we mean by “news” when discussing Facebook’s taxonomy of content. I suspect that researchers tend to overestimate the number of stories on Facebook that could reasonably be called “journalism.”
In fact, Facebook is perhaps far better-suited to serve up uncontroversial non-news items like puppy videos and Buffy quizzes. Because when more substantive news stories do take hold on the platform, reasoned discussion often gives way to combativeness, confirmation bias, and calculated efforts to deceive, leaving little room for the complexities of reality.
There are a couple key factors that make Facebook such a horrible place to discuss pretty much anything that matters.
First off, Facebook may relish in expanding its influence and importance as a news platform, but it doesn’t hold itself to any standards of accuracy or intellectual honesty like traditional journalism outlets do. Even some of the vilest tabloids assure readers that they won’t print outright lies.
But policing accuracy on a platform as large as Facebook would be impossible. The only content it polices is that which violates the company’s inconsistent and decidedly Puritanical standards of decency and good taste. And even on that front, Facebook’s algorithmic enforcers often make mistakes. Requiring every post or comment to meet even a loose definition of accuracy would result in a full-scale assault against the language of satire and sarcasm, along with censorship of any issue where the facts surrounding it aren’t entirely settled.
By doing nothing to curb false claims, however, Facebook has become home to massive amounts of misinformation, propaganda, and deceit. Perhaps the most insidious delivery system for these falsehoods are image memes which overlay unsourced “facts” and quotations over crudely photoshopped visuals. A terrifying but fabricated statistic pertaining to, say, vaccinations, along with a photo pulled from Google Images of a deformed child, is all a conspiracy theorist needs to introduce chaos into an otherwise reasoned discussion.
A welcome tactic for battling misinformation peddlers would be for Facebook to ban repeat offenders who habitually distort the truth. But I doubt the company wants to use accuracy as a barometer for banning users. I can think of a number of huge consumer brands that wouldn’t pass that test – brands that also spend enormous sums to advertise on Facebook’s platform.
Making matters worse are the mob dynamics that threaten to derail discussions on Facebook -- along with virtually every other social media platform – leading to de facto censorship within peer groups. Studies have shown that individuals are far less likely to share unpopular opinions on the Internet than in real-life, which can cause illusory and arbitrary consensuses to build around issues. Any brave naysayers who speak against their peer group’s consensus do so at the risk of inviting the unquenchable rage of the mob. (Last week, I wrote a piece discussing these dynamics as they pertained to the outrage directed at comedian Amy Schumer).
All of these issues are compounded by steps Facebook has taken in recent months to morph from a mere transport hub for the world’s news content, into an entity that hosts the content itself.
Facebook’s News Feed algorithms, which determine the stories each user sees based on a battery of hidden factors, already exert an enormous amount of control over the destinies of publishers. Theoretically, Facebook could target any publisher that happened to fall out of the platform’s favor by making largely-imperceptible tweaks to its News Feed algorithm – tweaks designed to effectively remove that publisher’s content from users’ feeds. As I wrote last week, some have accused Facebook of doing precisely that in an effort to chip away at YouTube’s dominance in the field of user-generated video.
The power to unearth some publishers’ articles while burying others’ was only made greater with the launch of Facebook’s Instant Articles feature. Instant Articles allow publishers to post content directly to Facebook’s servers, allowing these stories to load much faster on mobile devices. In return, Facebook reserves the right to take a cut of the piece’s ad revenue. What’s to stop Facebook from giving Instant Articles partners preferential treatment in News Feeds to encourage top publishers to sign up? If anyone cries foul, Facebook can simply claim that it’s prioritizing content on the basis of which articles load the fastest – you know, to improve the user experience!
All of this could spell disaster for independent journalism. And as Facebook continues to cement its position as the predominant platform for news – often at the expense of accurate, healthy discourse – it’s only going to get harder for publishers who, for any number of legitimate reasons, refuse to play by Facebook’s rules.