That Facebook is becoming less important as a source of news for people worldwide is not exactly news anymore.
Facebook, once a media distribution powerhouse, is now a distant second to Google, which is now the top external referrer to media sites, according to the Referrer Dashboard published by Parse.ly.
Right now, Google Search delivers almost 50% of all external referral traffic to Parse.ly’s customers—a list of prominent publishers that includes Time Inc., Condé Nast, HuffPost and The Wall Street Journal. Facebook’s share is down to 26%.
“News consumption via Facebook is down 9 percentage points in the United States and 20 points with younger groups,” says Nic Newman, Research Associate at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. “In our urban Brazilian sample the use of Facebook for news has fallen to 52% — a 17 point change from 2016.”
In the face of this decline, Facebook remained unfazed.
They themselves declared in an email statement, “people will connect with their friends more, and with public pages less; that means news publishers’ reach on the platform may go down.”
Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg was more emphatic about the direction the platform was headed, saying, “you’ll see less public content like posts from businesses, brands, and media.”
Campbell Brown, Facebook’s global head of news partnerships, was even quoted as saying, “We are not interested in talking to you about your traffic and referrals any more.”
Why would Facebook have such a devil-may-care attitude to a steady decline?
A new report by Kantar Media, commissioned by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, may have the answer to that question.
It turns out that while news consumption and publishers’ reach are going down on the Facebook platform, it is actually not going away from Facebook, Inc.
Rather audiences are increasingly using private messaging apps such as WhatsApp and Messenger for sharing and discussing news. Both of which, incidentally, are owned by Facebook, Inc.
The new report from Kantar Media and the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism was commissioned to support the 2018 Digital News Report and is being published in full for the first time.
The aim of the research was to explore consumer behaviour, attitudes and motivations surrounding news consumption in social networks and messaging apps, and the pivot away from news in Facebook.
The report looks at the social media habits of users in the U.S., U.K., Brazil, and Germany; the entire sample was made up of people who said they got news from Facebook or messaging apps at least weekly.
“This is new and different behaviour”
According to the report, as messaging apps such as Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp grow in popularity, they are increasingly being used to share and discuss news, away from the toxicity of political debate that threatens more open spaces.
“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 at the 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.”
WhatsApp is considered by many to be simpler and quicker to use, the report states, although this might be down to familiarity and first mover advantage.
When asked what they feel about some of the popular social networks, participants provided some rich imagery:
- Facebook – multi-faceted, sociopath, bipolar, adaptive, ego-centric, social butterfly, uncool uncle, mid-life crisis, clean, professional, generic.
- Twitter – loud, doesn’t stop talking, loose, messy, celebrities, niche.
- WhatsApp – best friend, sociable, fun, brings people together, straightforward, honest, reliable, faithful, discrete, nimble, agile, dynamic, current.
- Facebook Messenger – Facebook’s little sister/brother, ‘wannabe’, clingy, needy, irritating, inferior, boring old lady, inconsistent, if not got WhatsApp.
- Instagram – glamorous, model, vibrant, showy, vain, show-off, open-minded, stalker.
- Snapchat – young, childish, impulsive, pretentious, artificial, distant.
So while Facebook evokes ideas such as “sociopath,” “bipolar,” “uncool uncle,” and “midlife crisis,” WhatsApp has a more genial perception, like “best friend,” “sociable,” “fun,” and “honest.”
Nevertheless, Facebook continues to have a significant role as far as news is concerned, the report found.
“Facebook is still king”
The survey discovered that news might be picked up in Facebook and then shared in the privacy and greater intimacy of WhatsApp. Facebook is where news is announced, while WhatsApp is where it is copied across and discussed.
“The source is still Facebook because when we’re going to share something on WhatsApp, usually the article we’ve found is on Facebook. So Facebook is still king in that sense,” one U.S. respondent said.
While people are being pushed to the safety of messaging apps by the combination of privacy fears, exposure risk, content clutter and declining relevance, Facebook is encouraging this development in its algorithm changes, the report says.
Which is quite understandable when the shift is simply to other platforms under its own umbrella.
The report suggests that the news industry is beginning to see renewed consumer trust in established news brands over news in distributed platforms.
Yet, the challenge for publishers is to determine how to connect with audiences as they continue their shift from open to closed platforms, while developing value propositions that are financially viable.
At the same time, the report concludes, established news brands could help stave off the contagion of misinformation spreading to closed platforms such as WhatsApp.
Click here to download the full report