This week saw Facebook reject a proposal by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) to force the social media platform and Google to pay local news outlets when they use their content. Under the mandatory code of conduct, Facebook, Google and others would also dictate data sharing, news ranking and revenue sharing. Penalties would be enforced for companies breaching the code.
In its rejection of the proposal, Facebook stated it doesn’t need news stories. The social media giant said it could cut out news completely without any significant impact on its business.
Citing a change it made to its News Feed ranking algorithm in January 2018 to prioritise content from family and friends, Facebook said: “These changes had the effect of reducing audience exposure to public content from all pages, including news.
“Notwithstanding this reduction in engagement with news content, the past two years have seen … increased revenues, suggesting both that news content is highly substitutable with other content for our users and that news does not drive significant long-term value for our business.
“If there were no news content available on Facebook in Australia, we are confident the impact on Facebook’s community metrics and revenues in Australia would not be significant.”
Facebook added that news represents “only a very small fraction of the content in the average Facebook users’ newsfeed” because it was primarily a service used to connect with family and friends.
There is a wealth of evidence that refutes the suggestion that news consumption represents a small fraction of Facebook users’ newsfeeds and that the social media giant doesn’t need news to nurture business success.
The News Consumption in the UK report by Ofcom in 2018 showed that after BBC One and ITV, Facebook is the third most-used news source in Britain.
In terms of internet news – which is the second most-used platform for news today by UK adults – social media is the most popular type of online news, used by 44% of UK adults.
By 2019, the number of UK adults using social media as a source for news increased from 44% to 49%. As well as Facebook, more and more people are turning to the likes of Twitter, WhatsApp, and Instagram to regularly consume the news.
Must-read news-stands in the Digital Age
In the wake of the covid-19 pandemic, social media has gained even greater traction as must-read news-stands in the digital age. According to the Reuters Digital News Report 2020, nearly a quarter of people across six countries used the messaging service WhatsApp to get news about coronavirus in a week in April.
Facebook has experienced a surge in usage during lock-down, with more and more people turning to the social media giant, not just to stay in touch with friends and family, but to stay up-to-date with the latest news.
“I never buy newspapers and rarely watch the news on TV. Instead I follow the Guardian, Independent, Times and other quality papers to stay on top of what’s going on. I also follow alternative news sites like Another Angry Voice and groups like Remain in the European Union to read the views and opinions of like-minded people,” a Facebook user told me.
Countering Facebook’s claims that the average Facebook users’ newsfeed was used to connect with family and friends, the Facebook user added:
“I rarely post photos or anything ‘family-related’ on Facebook, or bother looking at such posts from people I follow. I prefer to use it as my primary source for news and political opinions.”
While some view Facebook as a valuable source for news and information, others have concerns about social media and the spread of misinformation. Reuters Digital News Report 2020 found that 56% of people were concerned about what was real and what was fake online, and 40% of people had concerns about misinformation on social media.
Read Before You Share
Such apprehension was pushed to the fore recently when Twitter announced plans to limit people sharing articles they have not read, an announcement that ricocheted the Twittersphere into frenzy.
Rather than the outright banning of sharing articles that users haven’t read, Twitter intends to add some “friction” into the process, in an attempt jolt people to reconsider their actions.
Twitter’s test is to be rolled out onto some users of Android devices, who will be faced with a prompt that asks if they really want to retweet a link that they haven’t tapped on.
In a statement, Twitter said: “Sharing an article can spark a conversation, so you may want to read it before you tweet it. To help promote informed discussion, we’re testing a new prompt on Android – when you retweet an article that you haven’t opened on Twitter, we may ask it you’d like to open it first.”
Twitter certainly is rife with the sharing on unread content. A study compiled in 2016 by Microsoft and computer scientists at Columbia University found that 59% of links posted on Twitter are never actually clicked on.
Users seem to have divided opinions about the move. Some defended the strategy to prompt people to only share articles they have read in an experiment Twitter hopes will “promote informed discussion” and critical thinking. As Adriano Abrusci said on Facebook: “What an intelligent and useful way to stop stupid stuff from spreading! A good way to invite people in using their critical thinking.”
A sentiment shared by Shalom Lopez, who commented: “Great idea, that should be implemented on Facebook too. Too many comments lacking critical skills, let along reading the actual article beyond the headlines.”
Others berated the idea, seeing it as a censorship of social media freedom and raising questions about the ethics of social media platforms being able to limit and manipulate what users are sharing.
Sharona Plakidas is one such thinker, commenting on Facebook: “If they are determined to limit things (actively editing and publishing – makes them publishers does it not? How about starting by banning the psychopath in the White House from spreading conspiracies – lies and deadly smears.”
Journalists know more than anyone just how misleading and manipulative headlines can be. Having worked for hours to create an honest, transparent, and well-balanced article, the whole gist of a story can be changed in an instant by an editor’s tampering with a headline to make it more sensational and therefore shareable. And with the tendency for articles to be shared merely on the strength of a headline, articles can go viral while their real meaning is misconstrued.
Perhaps, instead of rejecting proposals to share advertising revenue with news organisations whose content is posted on the platform by making assertions that cutting out news entirely wouldn’t impact its business, Facebook should embrace itself for what it is – a must-read news-stand in the digital age – and, like Twitter, concert efforts into implementing strategies for sharing news that spreads credible information and sparks informed discussion and debate.
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