Is Facebook becoming a news site?
Facebook's targeting has become too good for its own good. How should they adapt to their new role as a news provider?
Facebook has become too good at giving users what they want. In Q1 ‘16, the average Facebook user spent 50 minutes on the site daily, up from 40 in 2014, but this growth has come at the expense of quality.1
Facebook’s gained operating efficiencies due to technology improvements pose a risk to their business model. While Facebook’s scale (over 1Bn users) and habitual presence in users’ lives provide stability to the business, any shift in value proposition for the users or the advertisers could cause the scales to tip. The digital and data revolutions have enabled Facebook’s entire existence, creating a beautiful two-sided platform connecting advertisers with people, but Facebook’s algorithmic success poses additional risks that must be considered.
Facebook’s mission is to “Give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected. People use Facebook to stay connected with friends and family, to discover what’s going on in the world, and to share and express what matters to them.”2 Facebook’s predecessor was a combination of the yellow pages, handwritten personal address books, newspapers, in-person gaming competitions and physical letters. Their business model is fueled by technology:
- 7Bn user scale online: As Facebook’s user base grew to over 1.7Bn, brands and advertisers followed, and the data generated by both parties has become increasingly valuable.3 Without scale on both sides, this two-sided platform doesn’t work.
- Customized experiences create value: Facebook recognizes that users seek different things when they go to facebook.com, and recognizes that access to and information on these users is incredibly valuable to businesses. In 2015, ad spend on Facebook ($8bn) was 13.5% of all ad spend online, second only to google.4
- Mobile growth strengthens model: This scale has been fueled by widespread growth of mobile smartphones – as more people have consistent internet access, network effect magnified.
Facebook has successfully adapted their operating model as technology has advanced and more businesses have come online. Here are a few examples:
- Site features drive increased engagement: As site speed and compression have improved, certain features such as infinite scroll, auto–play video, and Facebook live have all improved customer experience and time on site. Facebook uses the news feed as a mechanism to facilitate that value.
- Advertising platform: Real-time bidding for ads allows Facebook to capture as much value as possible and cookie-based targeting justifies prices. Facebook’s US advertising average revenue per user was $13.71 in Q2 ‘165, up from $3.20 in Q2 ‘126
- Additional sources of content: In 2009, Facebook allowed organizations to create profiles on Facebook, instead of just individuals. Businesses could then create profiles on Facebook for free, drawing more readers to the platform.7
As Facebook has expanded their product offering and improved targeting, their role as a news provider has grown. Their operating model has further adapted to drive further news consumption:
- In May 2016, 66% of US adult Facebook users get news from Facebook, up from 47% in 2013.8
- Facebook is the highest source of referral traffic to news and media sites across the industry, providing estimated 15-45% of publishers’ traffic.9
- Instant Articles is a product feature designed to increase speed and improve user experience for reading articles, and was opened to all publishers in Feb 2016.10
Their operating model does not reflect additional challenges:
- Facebook has not implemented controls to prevent fake news articles from being shared.
- While Facebook’s algorithm is extremely complex, articles that receive higher click-through-rates and share-rates are more likely to be promoted in users’ news feeds – which can lead to more content that is click-bait, emotion driven, or isolated to topics that users find interesting and have clicked on in the past.11
When a platform grows, and the numerous sources of value in each direction become more intangible, you must be aware of tradeoffs. Here, Facebook is optimizing time-on-site to boost ad revenue, but not recognizing that fake news and click driven news feeds may be a turn-off to users in the long run. Both issues have been hot discussion topics after the most recent presidential election. The Wall Street Journal published a fascinating graphic illustrating the difference between news articles shared by liberal and conservative users.12 Jeff Jarvis, a professor at CUNY school of journalism, proposes several changes Facebook can make to combat fake news.13
If users were to begin to distrust Facebook as a source for news, this will have ripple effect consequences for the advertisers and the content creators. And outside of the negative potential impacts on Facebook’s network, this also poses broader risks for society.
Do you think Facebook should consider adding filters for fake news? Do you think the newsfeed is an echo-chamber which is detrimental? How should they balance these risks with their need to keep eyeballs on the site?
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 James B Stewart, “Facebook Has 50 Minutes of Your Time Each Day. It Wants More,” New York Times, May 5 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/06/business/facebook-bends-the-rules-of-audience-engagement-to-its-advantage.html , accessed November 2016.
 Facebook, “About Facebook”, https://www.facebook.com/pg/facebook/about/, accessed November 2016.
 Facebook, “Facebook Investor Relations,” https://investor.fb.com/home/default.aspx, accessed November 2016.
 Aleksandra Gjorgievska, “Google and Facebook Lead Digital Ad Industry to Revenue Record,” Bloomberg, April 21 2016, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-04-22/google-and-facebook-lead-digital-ad-industry-to-revenue-record, accessed November 2016.
 Adrian Stevens, “Facebook’s Revenue per User is Strongly Trending Upward,” Market Realist, Jul 28 2016, http://marketrealist.com/2016/07/facebook-2q16-arpu-growth-remains-strong/’, accessed November 2016.
 Facebook, 2012 Annual Report, p. 40, https://www.sec.gov/Archives/edgar/data/1326801/000132680113000003/fb-12312012x10k.htm, accessed November 2016.
 Samantha Murphy, “The Evolution of Facebook News Feed,” Mashable, Mar 12 2013, http://mashable.com/2013/03/12/facebook-news-feed-evolution/#eklxk6MYmkq8, accessed November 2016.
 Joseph Lichterman, “Nearly half of U.S. adults get news on Facebook, Pew says,” NiemanLab, http://www.niemanlab.org/2016/05/pew-report-44-percent-of-u-s-adults-get-news-on-facebook/, accessed November 2016.
 Jeffrey Gottfried and Elisa Shearer, “News Use Across Social Media Platforms 2016,” Pew Research Center, May 26 2016, http://www.journalism.org/2016/05/26/news-use-across-social-media-platforms-2016/ , accessed November 2016.
 Facebook, “Instant Articles,” https://instantarticles.fb.com/, accessed November 2016.
 Eytan Bakshy, Solomon Messing, and Lada Adamic, “Exposure to ideologically diverse news and opinion on Facebook”, Science Magazine, May 7 2015, http://education.biu.ac.il/files/education/shared/science-2015-bakshy-1130-2.pdf, accessed November 2016.
 Jon Keegan, “Blue Feed, Red Feed,” The Wall Street Journal, May 18 2016, http://graphics.wsj.com/blue-feed-red-feed/ , accessed November 2016.
 John Borthwick and Jeff Jarvis, “A Call for Cooperation Against Fake News,” Medium, November 18 2016, https://medium.com/whither-news/a-call-for-cooperation-against-fake-news-d7d94bb6e0d4#.rx1ddhnfz , accessed November 2016.
Student comments on Is Facebook becoming a news site?
Oh gosh, such a loaded topic but a great thing for us to discuss. Good summary of the issues! First, I agree that Facebook needs to get the fake news off the platform. It’s bad for users and it’s bad for society. It also reduces the value of facebook as an advertising property, I think. What brand wants to show up next to a bunch of fake news? It’s a really hard problem to solve, though. They need a way (potentially an algorithm) that can do this filtering in a totally objective way. Fortunately, Facebook has invested a TON of money in AI, so maybe that’s a problem they can solve. No way you can have humans do this. The volume is way too large and the second the filtering appears to be subjective, the liberal or conservative media (whoever was slighted in this instance) will go ballistic, so they have to be really careful. Also, maybe you ban specific articles, but if a particular website has a history of producing erroneous pieces, do you ban the entire site? Do you give them an opportunity to come back if they reform? I know Google has banned companies before for abusing SEO and eventually let them come back.
There’s also the question of the user experience. If you try to post something from a bad source, does it tell you that it’s not allowed? Does it explain what the issues are? Or perhaps it allows the posting but then there’s some sort of outline or marker on the post to signal to readers that there may be fact-checking concerns?
As daughter of ex journalist, I’m so excited to read your post! In addition to the data points you laid out, another key issue is concentration of news source, i.e. only 25% of people get news for 2+ sites, and only 10% from 3+ platforms. Against this backdrop, accuracy and balance of news as propagated via Facebook are even more paramount. If Zuckerberg is right that “99% of content is authentic,” I do believe Facebook should leverage AI and social listening software (e.g. Hootsuite, Sysomos, Zoho Social) to better filter and clean-up the other 1% in fake news. It could further revert Newsfeed algorithm to a chronology-based (versus what is trending) platform to minimize the ripple effect of sensationalism media.
Thank you Jordan for the post; I, an avid user of Facebook, read news articles almost through Facebook only and found this post fascinating. As your title suggest, Facebook indeed is increasingly expanding its boundary to media sector–a platform not just for social network but for news and video sharing. In March 2016, it even participated in a bidding to host National Football Leagues’ Thursday Night Football through its live-stream feature (http://www.si.com/nfl/2016/03/07/facebook-nfl-live-stream-thursday-night-football). While fake news articles recently were pointed out as a problem recently, there has been huge discussion about the role internet plays in creating public opinion in general. Facebook along with social network sites like Facebook, Buzzfeed, and Twitter, and search engine like Google have been criticized for manipulating which contents to be trended on their front pages (http://www.si.com/nfl/2016/03/07/facebook-nfl-live-stream-thursday-night-football). As SM mentioned, fake news–clearly contents no one wants to see–can be a subject of heated debate and regular contents with divided views pose an even bigger problem. I am curious to see how Facebook and those trending-based sites can tackle this!
Thanks, Jordan. A really thoughtful post that is definitely relevant to just about everyone. I agree that Facebook has become an important news source for our generation, so the statistics that you cite about the proportion of young adults consuming news through Facebook, though meaningful, are unsurprising.
To your point about the echo-chamber, our most recent election is a perfect exemplification. Personally, I do consume much of my news through Facebook, and was hard-pressed to find any articles in support of the opposing party. Perhaps Facebook should allow varied news sources to post directly on our newsfeeds in order to provide a more balanced view, assuming of course, that users opt in to this sort of arrangement.
On the veracity of articles, I wonder whether it falls upon Facebook to fact-check the pieces that are posted. Perhaps because they simply provide the platform, without affiliation to the sources or authors, they could make the argument that they should not be held responsible for the credibility of the information that is published. Further, and you touch upon this, presumably publishing false or otherwise erroneous information should be a self-correcting mechanism whereby the less reliable a source is perceived to be, the less often it will be relied upon or posted by Facebook users.
This is a really interesting, timely, and important discussion on what role social media sites like Facebook should have in an increasingly digitally-connected world. Other commenters have already raised some of the big challenges in fixing Facebook’s “fake news” dissemination (e.g., how to decide what’s fake and what isn’t, who makes the decision, how to break “echo chambers” effectively), but I find myself more concerned with the underlying implications on a more macro level.
I am most anxious about Facebook’s growing role in its users’ news consumption and the dangerous potential of someone abusing that influence for their own interests. By aggregating content, Facebook has become a powerful intermediary that controls the bulk of the user experience and commoditizes actual content suppliers like newspapers. As people started spending more and more time consuming content through Facebook, basically anyone who wanted to get the attention of users (newspaper outlets, businesses, etc.) had to be on Facebook as well. By focusing on user engagement, Facebook created a never-ending virtuous cycle for their favor: the more time users spend on Facebook, the more placement influence Facebook has over its business customers. With news specifically, as users spend more time getting news via Facebook, the less time is left to read anything else, thereby further increasing media outlets’ dependence on Facebook.
As such, I question if “top down” solutions are realistic – Facebook simply has no incentive to shift its focus away from user engagement when its business model is entirely driven by that metric. I think the only real “solution” will come individuals resisting the laziness of passively consuming content that’s been “curated” for us and actively seeking out reliable sources of real information and different perspectives.
Very timely post Jordan…and a great read to boot! You’ve got to the heart of one the key issues today’s society faces in how it gets its news. As a ex-BBC employee with a passionate belief in media’s role to help shape and develop society, this is a topic close to my heart.
Despite not creating any content, Facebook is a media-powerhouse with vast power and influence over its users. This is power that has the potentially to be leveraged in such a way that can really help to democratize the information-sharing process and enable users to be exposed to new ways of thinking. However, the reality is that, despite its noble mission, Facebook is a commercial organisation not a public service. This means serving up content that users will like and share, not content that users will learn from or be challenged by. The end result turns the social media giant into a dangerous mirror, whereby users simply have their own views reflected back at them, with said views only being further entrenched.
We can fool ourselves that, in getting news from dozens of providers via Facebook, we are in fact more well-rounded and informed that ever before, but the reality is that Facebook’s algorithms act as editorial curators which pander to all our biases, prejudice and long-held opinions. If, via Facebook, we are reading 15 articles a day from 15 different news providers but they are all cementing what we each already believe, is that really contributing to society’s progression? The only way to change that is for Facebook to take a risk: serve up content that will provoke, challenge and open our minds…even if users don’t like it.
What concerns me more than the fake news is the fact that Facebook’s algorithm is selecting which news to send to each users based on higher click-through-rates and share-rates.
This goes against the company’s mission “to discover what’s going on in the world”, given that diversity of opinions won’t be viewed / discussed simply because few people share this opinion. Is this true access to information?
My question here is – how can facebook make sure that its users have access not only to accurate information, but also to diverse information?