Facebook use for news has been declining for a while.
One of the reasons is that people are more aware of the social platform’s poor record on spreading misinformation. However, a recent research study has found that other concerns, such as loss of privacy and fear of backlash when expressing views online are even more powerful causes of the decline.
The new report by Kantar Media, commissioned by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, found that publishers actually benefit from the turn away from Facebook, with audiences increasingly using private messaging apps such as WhatsApp and Messenger for sharing and discussing news.
“We could see people getting less engaged with Facebook and more engaged with messaging apps, but we didn’t understand what lay behind this shift,” said Nic Newman, research associate, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.
“Users still discover news on the platform, but often take a screen grab and post to messaging apps to discuss with smaller groups - this is new and different behaviour.”
Participants in the research said that sharing and discussing news in smaller, closed groups allowed for more respectful and safer conversations.
One study participant said that discussing news in a private group, with a more tailored audience, protected him from being judged and “trolled,” as it’s often the case on public platforms.
“We are seeing more literacy in sharing, less blind sharing, more understanding of the personal responsibility to check and think,” said Newman.
“That’s a consequence of heightened concern about so called ‘fake news’ - but it is also a good thing.”
Some study participants welcomed Facebook’s efforts to de-clutter their News Feeds, particularly the removal of some advertisements, and still valued its role as a news portal.
But others are favouring new initiatives like News With Friends, an app that allows users to discover news article and discuss them privately with those they know.
So what does this mean to publishers?
Mark Frankel, social media editor, BBC sees a perceptible shift around misinformation and people’s willingness to join in conversations about things that might affect their lives.
“We all used to applaud the fact that several thousand people who saw your story in Facebook would come to the site,” he said. “However, they only read the first paragraph - the bounce rates were terrible.”
Frankel said that news sharing on messaging apps creates an opportunity to generate more popular, long lasting content based on the conversation in the group.
“It’s worked for us. Yes, you’re playing Facebook’s game but you are looking at it in a different way that you did 12 -18 months ago.”
According to Newman, Facebook is at a crossroads. Can their new focus on meaningful interactions re-engage users? Or has Facebook lost its coolness?
“My sense is that there is still to much personal investment and utility to keep users engaged but it is a fine line,” he said.
“One or two more well-publicised privacy issues or missteps on news could push people over the edge. Facebook is now on trial. It new needs to prove value to individuals but also to politicians and society.”