Facebook and the news

Paper for Rhodes Journalism Review, May 2016.

Facebook is changing news. We know this, we have known it for some time. This is not another piece about how the news industry is under threat, how social media is stealing its audience and advertisers (although all of those things are true). This is about Facebook, and how it is becoming the “newspaper of record” for the world, and how disturbing a thought that is.
If Hollywood is to be believed, Facebook was founded by a guy who wanted to get girls. It’s the classic story, boy meets girl, boy loses girl (actually girl dumps boy, but let’s not get into issues of women’s agency in popular culture representations here), boy invents new technology to get revenge on girl and find new girl. It’s probably not that simple, but the basic impetus is true – Facebook was founded as a means to foster social connections, initially within a university campus, and then across the Internet.
In its initial iteration, Facebook’s focus was on the profile, and the information contained within. This section was the only section that allowed pictures, and it originally allowed you to say whether you were looking for friendship, relationships, or something else. Status updates were limited to words, and were not preserved in a timeline or “feed”. All members of the site were searchable, and connections could be easily made. In other words, it was like a dating site. From here, the site evolved to allow people to see a timeline of their friends’ activities, the “news feed”, which changed the system from a directory to a regular source of information. This changed the site from one you used occasionally to find someone, to one that contained all the latest information about your social circle, and thus needed to be checked regularly, and is the thing that made Facebook the most successful social media site by far. This change was followed by the ability to post pictures (and later video), the creation of apps and games, groups and then pages, companies, messenger services, money transfer and so on. (Anders, 2014; Prashanth, 2013).
In many ways, the evolution of Facebook mirrors the maturing process of its audience. From a site to find friends and relationships, to share gossip and make plans, much in keeping with its late adolescent users’ focus on social interactions within a closed group, it has become a place to share comment and ideas about the larger world, as those users grew up and developed outside interests. Facebook has not necessarily embraced these changes – in many cases, functions and services were added because users were themselves “gaming the system” to provide those, or because of the fear of losing users to other services and sites that did provide them. Facebook Messenger is a clear example of this, being direct competition to Google Chat/Hangouts/Voice, which was itself a response to the facilities offered by Skype.
Facebook recently made the tech news again, with a leak from a source claiming that the company was concerned that people were no longer posting personal pictures, images and stories, but were using the site to share third party information (cat videos, memes and jokes, but also news). (Frier, 2016) This has apparently been dubbed “context collapse” although it’s not clear why. What is clear is that the posting of original content by users on the site is down, that users are reposting more material from elsewhere (Efrati, 2016) and that Facebook is introducing new features to encourage more personal sharing, such as live video (recently used by Fahamalo Kihe Eiki to stream the birth of his child to 90 000 people (Woolf, 2016)), near-automatic posting from mobile phone cameras and reminders of things that happened in the past.
It is also reasonably easy to work out why people are posting less and less of their own content and information to the site. Aside from concerns about privacy and security (an issue for many people, yes, but not for the majority of users, yet), there are a number of other reason why users may have changed their posting style. One is the increased use of mobile phones to access the site: in December 2015, of the 1.59 billion accesses to the site, 1.44 billion of these were from a mobile device (Facebook, 2016a). Mobile devices make it easy to share links and posts from other people, but typing an original post is fiddly and annoying. It is obvious to anyone who has accessed the Internet from a mobile device that although it is convenient, portable, and cheap, it changes the focus of the experience from interaction to consumption (with the occasional “like” or other one-click response).
Age is another factor, and the changing nature of friend groups on Facebook. Facebook is increasingly the mature person’s social network: in 2015 79% of online Americans between 30 and 49 were active users of Facebook, 64% of those 50 to 64 and 48% of those over 65 using the site. Compare Instagram, with only 11% of people between 50 and 64 using the site, and Twitter at 13 (Perrin, 2015). The South African Social Media Landscape 2016 report shows that 54% of Facebook users are over 30 (World Wide Worx, 2016). Reliable statistics for other countries are scarce, but sources from 2014 claim that globally 47% of the people on Facebook are over 35, with an additional 24% being 25 to 34 (Jetscram, 2014; Statista, 2015).
Older people tend to have a wider circle of friends and acquaintances on the Internet, to be more concerned about how they appear to those people (which may include colleagues, classmates and distant relatives), and to be more constrained by concerns for the privacy of others (as an example, I don’t post about my work on Facebook because most of my work involves information about students which I am not at liberty to share), and to be aware of the consequences of injudicious disclosure.
What is not clear is why Facebook cares how much personal content you post, as opposed to sharing of other content. In fact, the company seems somewhat confused on this issue, since it has been actively creating services and functions which make it easier to do so.
Facebook Pages were launched in 2007, a clear response to the ways in which the service was being used. Not all users are individual people, and companies and services were using the site to promote themselves. Rather than have an organisation complete a profile (complete with relationship status and details about where you went to school), the site allowed entities other than inviduals to create pages within the site. Pages have been somewhat controversial, with many users finding them frustrating, and increasingly linked to paid services and promotions, but they were the mechanism by which news organisations began to appear on the site as entities, rather than as a function of journalists’ personal profiles.
In 2008 Facebook launched Facebook Connect, which allowed users to share their profile information with other websites and which in turn led to the development of Facebook Share in 2009 (Ostrow, 2008; Parr, 2009). Both functions seemed to have been tailor-made for news organisations – Facebook Connect provide sites with the ability to track and identify users without them needing to register separately for each site, and was widely used for comment management by news sites, Facebook Share allowed sites to provide a button that automatically shared that page on Facebook, under the user’s profile. This had been possible previously, and many sites did offer this as a way to attract users to their site, but the official button allowed sites to track shares and comments that the article garnered on Facebook itself. This trackback allowed publishers to see Facebook usage as part of their own traffic, and to track the popularity of their stories across the social network (Parr, 2009).
Both of these services were created in response to other social networks, such as Twitter, which has always made it easy to share links and stories across their network. Twitter has been perceived as being more of interest to journalists and news organisations than Facebook was, primarily because of the public nature of profiles and feeds, and its early adoption by journalists worldwide (Knight, 2013, 2012, 2011; Manjoo, 2015), and it seems clear that Facebook was wanting to capitalise on the traffic generated by news on social media.
More recently, additional services have been added which clearly point towards the site being seen by its management as providing a news distribution and consumption service. Instant Articles, launched in May 2015, allows news organisations to publish directly to the site, and generate advertising, commentary and traffic not to their main page, but to their presence within Facebook. Response has been mixed, but support is still strong, and many major players, including The New York Times, Buzzfeed and Gawker, are continuing to use the service (Griffith, 2015a, 2015b; McAlone, 2015).
Coupled with Instant Articles was the launch of “Trending News” in mid-2015. This is a panel of links and articles to things that are trending on the site, sorted by category (news, politics, science and technology, entertainment and sports), and based on “a number of factors including engagement, timeliness, Pages you’ve liked and your location” (Facebook, 2016b). Comparisons to Twitter’s Trends feed are inevitable, and not unwarranted. The Follow option was added in 2013. Technically, this was not a new service, but a rebranding of the old “subscribe” option to more closely mimic the wording and behaviour from other sites. The function of the “Follow” button is similar to other social networks. Instead of requiring a reciprocal relationship and the explicit exchange of Friendship status on the site, a user with a public profile (Facebook themselves suggest that the service can be used to follow celebrities and journalists, specifically (Facebook, 2016c)) can allow people to Follow them, which will allow followers to see their updates and comments without needing to be their friend. The service is clearly intended to allow celebrities and public figures to maintain an asymmetrical relationship with strangers, using the site more as a publishing platform than as a social sharing and interaction system (Darwell, 2012).
This is being used to interesting effect by a number of people and small news organisations. Definitely, the ability to post lengthy posts, to have followers who see your content, and to manage your Facebook page/account as a sole proprietor has meant that many people use the site as a kind of personal blog or website. Certainly, there is an increasing amount of original content on the service, and only on the service (as opposed to being published elsewhere and linked or shared on Facebook), and the barriers to entry for this kind of publishing are infinitesimal. However, this is a limited and closed option for anyone producing content. You cannot generate revenue (as things currently stand) by posting on Facebook alone, since the advertising is not yours. In addition, it is not unheard of for Facebook to close accounts that it sees as violating its terms, which change frequently. For anyone posting content on Facebook, you are agreeing to their terms of service, which includes granting them a license to use your content as they see fit.
All of these services indicate that Facebook is clearly happy to have news organisations use the site to engage with their readers, to share and comment on stories, and to provide content that can be easily shared and read. And users agree. Increasingly, Facebook is being used as a source of information about the world. According to the Pew Research Centre, 63% of the service’s users see it as a source of news. Flipping the statistic, in 2015, 41% of US adults got some or all of their news and current affairs information through Facebook, and the number is increasing. The trend is moving away from Twitter as a news source, not because Twitter has less news, or is less used by its membership as a source of news, but because Twitter has fewer active users. (Barthel et al., 2015).
People have to get their news from somewhere, and if the public, and the news organisations are on Facebook (and they increasingly are), then getting news from Facebook makes sense. The issue is what kind of news is available on Facebook, and what users actually see.
Facebook was set up as the original social network and it was explicitly designed to only allow online connections to people with whom you have some connection in the real world. The reciprocal nature of connections on the site (in order to be connected to someone, both of you have to agree that you are “friends”) and habits around privacy and searching means that most Facebook connections remain within the original scope of the site: people you are friends with in the non-online world. This is in contrast with Twitter, where all users are public by default, and people tend to follow a wider range of other users.
For Facebook, this means that most people’s networks resemble their own social group in terms of class, race, language and culture. Given that Facebook’s “trending” list is not an absolute measure of popularity (unlike Twitter’s), but is customised based on your own likes and information, and that the material that appears in your news feed is only that which has been seen and reposted by your friends, that makes the site an echo chamber, in which you are unlikely see news and opinions you disagree with, or to be exposed to news from places and communities with which you have little connection. As Facebook’s news feed algorithm responds to what you comment on and share, this can easily become a spiral of repetition, so that if you never “like” something a friend posts, you will be unlikely to see anything else from them again. In the interests of keeping you on the site, or making it a comfortable place to hang out, Facebook doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t make you think or make you uncomfortable, and it will deliberately shield you from things you disagree with. This is diametrically opposed to what is often considered to be the point of journalism – to tell you something you don’t already know, to make you think about things differently, and to illuminate things that are hidden.
A study conducted in 2014 by researchers based at Facebook and at the University of Michigan found that users were less exposed to content that conflicted with their stated political affiliation (political viewpoint is a field in the Facebook profile), and less likely to click on or share a link that they disagree with (Bakshy et al., 2015). As the algorithm learns from this behaviour, it will show less and less of that content, and it will be lower down the feed. An interesting demonstration of this is available on the Wall Street Journal’s site, with an interactive tool using the same data as Bakshy et al’s study. The difference in news content is startling. (Keegan, 2016) Although this article, and this demonstration, is based on US users and US-based content, the algorithm is universal, so users in any country and language will see the same pattern emerge.
Facebook’s algorithm is invisible. Although it is possible to turn off the automatic ranking of posts on your news feed, and see material in chronological order, it is not offered as a highly visible option (and is not available at all on the mobile application, which is how the majority of users use the service (Facebook, 2016a; World Wide Worx, 2016)) so most users have no idea that they are seeing a filtered selection of the posts available. The algorithm itself is secret, and based on constantly updated proprietary code. (Somaiya, 2014)
Facebook’s trending news service is not purely algorithmic, but is based on a curated list of content, that may or may not be subject to direct political interference, depending on which news source you believe. Gizmodo recently ran articles on how the curation service works, and included accusations from one former journalist that they had been instructed to ignore popular news from conservative news organisations when choosing stories for the trending list. The accusations have not been repeated elsewhere, but the fact remains that what is presented as a simple “what is popular now” service, is in fact a customised and selected list of what the company thinks the reader might be interested in. Selection is fundamental to traditional news organisations, but this is based on a complex set of ideas about what news is, what is important, and what is interesting to the readers. This is not to imply that the mix of news provided by traditional news outlets is perfectly balanced, but there is more thought and consideration put in to the mix. Facebook’s service seems to be based purely on popularity, and privileges particular kinds of content. Bakshy’s study shows that only 13% of news shared on the site is hard news (politics and current affairs), a far lower proportion than is typical of traditional news outlets. The fact that Buzzfeed and Gawker are now among Facebook’s key partners in the development of Facebook Live and Instant Articles indicates the appeal of the service to particular kinds of content and news.
The economy of the Internet privileges particular kinds of content, content that has a hook, or the ability to generate lots of comment and sharing. As Facebook now makes it possible for news organisations to track stories’ popularity across the site, and to gain instant feedback on what is popular, and as news organisations increasingly rely on online advertising for revenue, it is inevitable that organisations will look to create stories that will be popular on the site. Since popularity is not linked only to what people like, but to what they share and comment on, this means that extreme points of view are more likely to become popular (and there is an argument to be made that Donald Trump’s popularity is the result of this). This is not to say that Facebook is alone in this – all news organisations are increasingly focused on popularity and sharing, and the effect is readily visible on many news sites. However, the combination of this tendency, coupled with the echo chamber effect of the news feed, and the overwhelming popularity of the service (at the expense of other media consumption, inevitably) creates a vicious circle.
A plurality of information sources is widely considered to be important for the development of society and its citizens. Facebook tends to monopoly (as do many other things in free market capitalism), in an ever-decreasing circle of popularity and consumption. The use of an automated algorithm, and a singular incentive (to increase the number of clicks, views and page shares) will inevitable mean that the system narrows and narrows the kinds of content it shows us. It is possible that people will become bored and frustrated by this, and move away from the service, or that the service will recognise this happening and alter the algorithm to surprise and inform people, but waiting for that might be too risky in the long term. Who’s to say that the providers of serious, thoughtful and intelligent comment and information will still be there, if we ever emerge from our bubble of cat videos and extreme rants.
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