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Given that so many Americans are dependent on social media for their daily dose of the news, it could have a huge societal impact if social media juggernaut Facebook ever decides to step away from the news business altogether. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what appears to be happening right now.
Based on recent data, publishers are seeing a dramatic drop-off in their referral traffic from Facebook, suggesting that news articles are no longer being promoted by the Facebook algorithm. And the situation is especially dramatic when it comes to “hard news” – you know, the stuff that used to show up on the front page of your favorite newspaper. Across the board, referral traffic is down 30-40%, but the downswing is even more pronounced for political news.
What’s causing the new situation?
Before speculating on what future impact this could have on society, it’s important to back up for a moment and consider what’s causing this change in strategy from Facebook. After all, a multi-billion-dollar business doesn’t switch gears overnight unless there’s a big problem. And Facebook indeed does appear to have a problem.
It starts with recent demands from lawmakers that tech companies pay news publishers for content they post to their platform. In other words, if Facebook shows articles from the New York Times on its platform, then Facebook should pay the New York Times for those articles. That situation occurred in Canada, where lawmakers threatened the very underpinnings of Facebook’s business model by demanding Facebook pay up. As might be expected, Facebook immediately pulled all news content from Canada. The message was clear: the publishers need us more than we need the publishers.
A secondary reason has to do with the “messy” and “chaotic” nature of news these days. Any news article posted to your platform has the potential to offend someone these days, and any content deleted from your platform also has the potential to offend someone these days. Either you’re charged with fostering misinformation and disinformation, or you’re charged with censorship and the suppression of free speech. Who needs to deal with all those headaches?
And, finally, there’s the very real fact that text-centric social media platforms aren’t good business these days. Instead, it’s all about short-form video. Everyone wants to be more like TikTok these days, and getting rid of text-heavy news on Facebook would make it a lot more friendly to the TikTok generation. It would free up Facebook to feature more viral video clips on its platform. And it would also make it much easier to trap users on their platform, instead of sending them off-platform to a news site. When Facebook launched Threads this summer, it did so with a goal of not encouraging hard news, especially political news.
So what’s the final impact?
It’s hard not to think that Facebook abandoning news is a bad direction for society to go in. Looking back in hindsight, it’s clear that the rise of social media led to the demise of traditional media. But mainstream news publishers kept things plugging along by working out various deals with Facebook to get their articles highlighted on the platform. They might no longer be getting visitors to arrive at their websites by a direct route, but they were more than happy to get the firehose of referral traffic that Facebook seemed to guarantee.
We live in an era where nobody trusts the news anymore, and where even the term “mainstream media” is more of an insult than anything else. Kids growing up today have no idea that their parents tuned into the news religiously every night right before dinner, or that they made reading the daily newspaper a priority before showing up at the office each day. For them, TMZ is just as credible as the NYT, and a social media influencer on TikTok is a better source than a career journalist with deep industry expertise. The situation will only get worse if Facebook gets out of the news business.
So what do we get when the big news organizations have no readers, no followers, no advertisers, and now no referral traffic? You get a society that’s dumbed down, oblivious to what’s happening around it, and easy to manipulate. And that’s not good.