Amidst the recent controversy around whether or not Facebook was interfering with their Trending Topics to promote or suppress certain issues, one of the main questions many had was 'does it matter?'
Do people really get their news from Facebook anyway?
As it turns out, a growing number of people do rely on Facebook for news content - a new study released by Pew Research shows that 62% of U.S. adults now get their news on social media, up from 49% when Pew conducted the same study in 2012.
Of those who are active on social media, 66% of Facebook users nominated it as a key news source, up from 47% when the study was conducted in 2013. The finding underlines the key role that Facebook now plays in the wider news landscape - when you consider, too, that Facebook's reaching 173 million users each day in the U.S. and Canada, it provides some scope as to the potential influence the network can have on the news cycle.
Yet, as you can see here, Reddit is the clear leader, with 70% of Reddit users regularly getting news updates from the site. While it's not as utilized as other platforms, this finding highlights the dedication of the Reddit community, and the trust their users put into the integrity of their on-platform discussions.
The research takes into account the responses of 4,654 members of Pew Research Center's American Trends Panel, so it's a small chunk in comparison to the total population of the U.S. (more than 320 million), but an indicative one, nonetheless.
In other findings, Pew's research team has determined that Facebook, through sheer audience size, has the biggest influence over news circulation, with the equivalent of 44% of the general population getting news on the site.
A significant percentage of Twitter users also get news on the platform, but the lower usage rate puts it further down the list.
Pew also examined how many social media platforms each person uses for news content, with the vast majority indicating that they only use one - which, again, points to Facebook as the main source.
In terms of demographics, a higher number of older social media users are getting their news content from LinkedIn, while Instagram over-indexes significantly in the 18-29 bracket for news content.
And as noted, the influence of social media as a news source has increased significantly over time - which makes sense, given the widespread adoption of social platforms.
While much of this reinforces what many would have already suspected, what's particularly relevant is the influence that Facebook has, and can have, over the news cycle, which underlines the importance of the current debate around the impartiality of Facebook's Trending Topics section. Whether you rely on Facebook for news or not, the fact is that that even by virtue of pure reach alone, Facebook is an influential news outlet, and it does have the power to change how people think, how people respond. How people vote.
There was discussion some time ago about how Mark Zuckerberg's opposition to the views of Donald Trump could lead to Facebook de-emphasizing Trump's content, which could, in effect, reduce the effectiveness of his campaign. Facebook's denied they would ever do anything of the sort - and worth noting, there's no evidence to suggest Facebook has done so - but it is a relevant point to consider. Facebook could significantly influence public opinion through the content shown on its platform.
Actually, it already has as part of an experiment to see if Facebook content impacts on people's emotional state (spoiler alert: it does).
This is why the current debate over Facebook's influence on news content is relevant, and why it's worth taking into consideration. Facebook's doing all it can to ensure its process is transparent, revising its Trending Topics policies and eliminating outside measures which could impact on what it shows in its Trending lists. But either way, it's a relevant consideration, and a relevant discussion to be had.
The impact of social on our communications landscape is significant. It's important we recognize and assess what that means.