A new study by Pew Research has found that Facebook is 'far and away the most common source for news about government and politics' among Millennials in the U.S. The study compared the top media news sources for Millenials (aged 18-33), Generation X'ers (34-49) and Baby Boomers (50-68), finding that Facebook leads among both Millennials and Gen X, in terms of being a political and government news source. Boomers, meanwhile, are still most reliant on TV news.
While the data itself is not overly surprising, the significance of the gap between Facebook (61%) and the next closest source (CNN at 44%) is something that can't be ignored, particularly when considering the breadth of that age bracket. People aged 18 to 34 make up around 20.7% of the American population, according to U.S. Census figures from 2013. Generation X'ers make up 19.5% - in combination, based on this research, Facebook is the leading source of government and political news for more than 40% of the U.S. In addition, 26.2% of citizens are aged under 19, making Facebook the clear leader for political news overall.
While TV is still a major provider among both Gen X and Boomers, Pew's numbers again underline that Facebook's relevance as a news source is rising, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
In an Instant
The findings come at an interesting time for Facebook and the evolution of news content. Facebook recently announced its new 'Instant Articles' offering, where it will partner with major news publishers to have them post their content direct to Facebook, rather than linking back to their own websites. This has sparked much concern amongst online news agencies and providers - while the initial parameters of Instant Articles are quite favourable for publishers, in regards to revenue share and content control, the concern is that Facebook will eventually, once publishers are reliant on their traffic, alter the parameters of the deal in order to skew the benefits more in their favour. As publishers will have built up a dependency, they'll have no choice but to cede to Facebook and give them whatever they want. Such concerns are based on Facebook's history of shifting the landscape, as they've done with organic reach in the past, and publishers are understandably hesitant to put themselves in that same situation again. But the numbers, as underlined by Pew, are almost impossible to ignore.
If you're a publisher of news and current affairs content, this study shows that your best bet in reaching your widest possible audience is via Facebook. In order to reach the widest audience possible on Facebook, your best bet is to play along with Facebook's offerings, which would likely mean taking up Instant Articles. While Facebook hasn't definitively confirmed this, Facebook's algorithm is more likely to favour Instant Articles over other content - either now or later - so publishing via this method will eventually be the way to go. And given the audience data, how can you say no? But then, given the concerns about surrendering control, or even independence, how can you say yes? While the questions around Instant Articles and publisher reliance on Facebook are valid, these audience numbers present a compelling case for Facebook.
On Political Engagement
The other query the Pew figures raise relates to political engagement and the utilisation of social media in the political and campaigning process. At present, most politicians have a social media presence in some form, but it's still not engrained into what they do, it's not something that's essential for every campaign. With the majority of voters getting their political news and information from social networks, this once again underlines the need for political organisations to take social media seriously, to understand it's value and work with the wider communications shift.
There's evidence of that value in past political campaigns - in the U.S., voter turnout for Presidential elections has averaged 53.18% since 1980. The peak in that period, hoever, occurred in 2008 when voter turnout hit 57.1%. In that election, which Barack Obama eventually won, social media was a key platform - it was even labelled by some as 'The Facebook Election'. While there's not a significant enough dataset to form a definitive conclusion, one could suggest that the wider adoption of social media platforms in the 2008 campaign contributed to increasing overall awareness, and thus, higher voter turnout as a result. In a similarly related study conducted in 2012, researchers concluded that around 340,000 extra people turned out to vote in the 2010 US congressional elections because of a single election-day Facebook message. Such results point to the significant implications of a social media-aligned messaging, and the rising political relevance of the platform.
The Communications Shift
There are, of course, still some, in both business and politics, who see social media as a fad, as something that's mostly populated by kids sharing selfies and hieroglyphic-type emoji texts that make no sense to an outside viewer. Given the rate of political engagement on the medium, the Pew numbers underline its relevance and the important part social now plays in everyday communications. This is particularly true of the next generation - Facebook is now ten years-old, many of those in Millennial and younger brackets can't even remember a time when followers and Likes weren't a form of our social currency.
Social media matters. If you're not taking social seriously, you're missing out, while also failing to reach a growing majority of people on their media platform of choice. Pew's data only further underlines the need to be listening online and making best use of social channels in the modern age.
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