Are social media sites like Facebook changing the way we read news?
Traditional journalists who put pen to paper—long before Facebook was an idea in Mark Zuckerberg’s mind—take pride in their profession because the reports they write are designed to make their target readers think. Regardless of their topic, their published articles are supposed to make people take stock of the world around them, review their environment with a critical eye, and apply these lessons to their lives. Given enough information and a just cause, these journalists can also galvanize a concerned readership into leaving the comforts of their home and taking action that will supposedly lead to more positive changes for society.
The seriousness with which journalists take their mandate seriously is why they are beginning to sound the alarm about how social media sites, especially the uncontested leader Facebook, are supposedly redefining the way that readers are consuming and digesting the news. These issues fall into two categories. First, social media is becoming the indirect source of news. Second, the millions of readers who do derive their news from social media are slowly replacing their critical thinking with conformity and social homogeneity.
To put it simply, people used to read the news to understand different perspectives, analyze all the relevant issues, and come to their own intelligent conclusions. These days, they pick the news they read on social media sites because many of their friends and followers read them – and this choice is fueled by a desire to “belong” to the crowd and have others agree with them. In-depth, respectful discourse is replaced by public acquiescence.
The numbers do support the concerns of these more seasoned journalists. According to the latest study by Pew Research Center, more than 60 percent of American adults get their news from social media sites. Instead of going to a news site, they check their social media newsfeeds to see which articles their friends posted, and then read and repost them. Facebook is leading the pack, followed at a respectful distance by Twitter and LinkedIn.
This “switching of channels” has caused media executives, publishers, and their editorial teams no small amount of anxiety. This was very palpable in Mashup’s coverage of the launch of Taboola, which is positioning itself as a platform for individual media platforms to rival and counteract Facebook’s siphoning of online readership. Taboola founder Adam Singolda touched a raw nerve when he asked the restless crowd: “Instant Articles, all of it is on Facebook. You get traffic and all of it is great, but do you even have an identity? Do you know your users? Are they all zombies that just happen to be here and could be somewhere else tomorrow?”
New York Times op-ed columnist Frank Bruni takes the battle against the formidable Facebook to the next level by charging it with creating an environment that inspires a mind-numbing political correctness. At the same time, he also lays the blame on the news readers who just want a collective affirmation that the social media site just amplifies. As he elaborates, “If we seek out, ‘like’ and comment on angry missives from Bernie Sanders supporters, we’ll be confronted with more angry missives from more Sanders supporters. If we banish such outbursts, those dispatches disappear. That’s the crucial dynamic, algorithm or whatever you want to call it. That’s the trap and curse of our lives online.”
Fortunately, there seems to be a way out of the trap, one which is hinted at by the Pew Research Center report. The Facebook juggernaut may not have captured the entire reading online crowd; there is still a small but growing number of social media consumers, ranging from 20 to 30 percent in that community, who get their news independently from TV broadcasts and news apps.
One such app is Born2Invest, with an 80,000-membership strong community who clicks on its various business categories every day to get news that will allow them to navigate in their daily business dealings. Born2Invest founder Dom Einhorn says of his loyal audience, “These are businessmen, entrepreneurs, visionaries, investors, and career professionals who want to make a better life for themselves. Chances are many of them do go to social media sites, but they are also strong individuals who have to make far-reaching decisions about their organizations. And while they will always value consensus, what they need is relevant, accurate information that can help them make those informed decisions.”
“One reason why our community is still growing is due to our writers who are seasoned journalists but are also versed in the dynamics of the online landscape. Our writers are based in many locations around the world. They curate news from international agencies and yet give them that local flavor and context that will make them relevant and an interesting read to our audiences based in those areas,” Einhorn explains.
This long-term simmering tension between social media sites and online journalism is far from over. The battle for the minds and hearts of the readers may just have begun. One thing that the Born2Invest app experience has shown is that the readers will always search for solid, useful news items that they can rely on. At the end of the day, content remains king. It is the fuel that makes the dissemination of news links in social media possible in the first place.
To put it bluntly, if there is no existing interesting news story to read, what can a social media user share?