It's no surprise that Facebook is looking to take over news publishing. A new study by Pew Research has found that the share of Americans who now use social media as a source of news has risen by more than 13% overall since 2013. The survey of more than 2,000 US adults found that 63% now use Facebook and Twitter as "a source for news about events and issues outside the realm of friends and family".
Twitter was clearly the leading real-time news source - at 59% as opposed to 31% who used Facebook for this purpose - while Facebook has increased the most as an overall news resource, with 63% of users saying they got news from Facebook, as opposed to 47% in 2013. If these trends continue, social networks will totally dominate news distribution within the next few years. The findings also reinforce the current strategic directions of both the major social players, based on their recent movements.
The Pew data reinforced Twitter's position as the leader in real-time news.
This is one of Twitter's greatest strengths, an aspect reinforced by Twitter co-founder Ev Wlliams in an interview at the Brainstorm Tech conference this week - when quizzed about the strategic vision of the company, Williams noted that:
"I think Twitter is primarily a news system. From early on, we didn't know what it was: a social network, microblogging was a thing a a lot of people called it. In 2009, we made the distinction internally and the way we started talking about it was as a real-time information network."
The value of Twitter as a real-time news source was behind the recent announcement of "Project Lightning", a new Twitter offering that will give more focus to the top tweets and content from specific news events, be they breaking news or pre-scheduled events. Project Lightning's aim is to showcase Twitter's capacity for real-time coverage, to highlight the value of Twitter's data, particularly to non-users and those who've avoided the platform due to it's fast paced streams and abundance of noise. Project Lightning will be human curated, selecting on the best content, which will include live streams from Periscope and video clips from Vine, all to be served in an easy to use, swipe to the next story type format.
Pew's data supports that this is where Twitter's strength lies, and will likely embolden Twitter's board to push ahead with this strategy - this, combined with the recent deal with Google to index real-time tweets, looks set to propel Twitter forward and reinforce its utility as an invaluable information source.
Owning the News
Facebook's push into the publishing space has been less well-received. Back in May, and after many months of speculation, Facebook announced "Instant Articles", a new offering that would enable publishers to post content direct to Facebook. In doing so, publishers would be given access to Facebook's publishing platform tools, which would mean their content loads much faster - instantly, you might say. Facebook's data showed that the average mobile load time for an external link is eight seconds, so rather than have people wait, so goes the pitch, you can upload to Facebook direct and give consumers a better reading experience. You'll also have the benefit of reach to Facebook's massive network, and while Facebook noted at the time that Instant Articles content would not be favored by the controversial News Feed algorithm, they've since made changes that lean towards boosting the reach of this type of content - they added a new algorithm factor that takes into account time spent viewing content, which will no doubt benefit longer form articles on the site, and they've also updated the News Feed Preferences section, which will enable users to select sources from which they want to see more content from, including a new "Discover New Pages" tab. No doubt that tab will include a range of publications that are utilizing Instant Articles at some stage.
Facebook's making a big push towards becoming the news and information source, and Pew's data reinforces their approach, the reasons why they see this as a way to keep users within Facebook's walls. Quite simply, social media is becoming the way people connect to news and information. And as those younger demographics grow up, people who've been raised with social media as part of their DNA, the way they interact and communicate, that number is only going to increase. But such a shift does come with some concerns.
Last year, there was a major uproar after it was revealed that Facebook had conducted an experiment to see if they could influence people's state of mind by altering what content they were exposed to in their News Feed. They found they absolutely could, and in another experiment, Facebook sought to influence voter turnout by also manipulating what certain users were shown. Again, they could. Such findings underline the power Facebook has, given its huge user base and the reliance people put on Facebook as a news source. But given that level of influence, couldn't Facebook also use such power to sway political results in their favour, if they so wanted? What if one Presidential candidate had policies that benefited Facebook more than another?
While it seems unlikely that Facebook is part of some dastardly, Lex Luthor-style plot to take control of the world, the rising reliance on social platforms as news sources does also lead to concerns about the control that the same platforms have over news content and content distribution.
This concern is also touched upon by Pew in their report on their findings:
"As more social networking sites recognize and adapt to their role in the news environment, each will offer unique features for news users, and these features may foster shifts in news use. Those different uses around news features have implications for how Americans learn about the world and their communities, and for how they take part in the democratic process."
While they suggest that Facebook might be trying to control the spread information, the note that these features have implications for how Americans learn and take part in the democratic process is likely a nod towards the suggestion that people's social media inputs have an increasing influence over not only how we see news content, but also, what we see. And as social networks build more capacity in this regard, through projects like Project Lightning and Instant Articles, they also gain more power and influence over the distribution of content more generally - could they then use that influence public opinion and sentiment? They absolutely could. While unlikely, it does raise an interesting question about such a shift.
The full Pew Research report, "The Evolving Role of News on Twitter and Facebook", contains a range of additional insights and perspectives, and is worth a read to get more perspective on the growing use of social media as a news and information source. The future President as chosen by Facebook? On that, we'll just have to wait and see.