Why are people turning away from Facebook as a news source?

12 Sep 2018

Facebook on a web browser. Image: JaysonPhotography/Shutterstock

Facebook is becoming a less popular place for people to consume news online, and a new report sheds light on the reasons behind the turning tide.

In the last few years, the internet has become the major avenue for many people in their discovery, consumption and discussion of news and current affairs. Social networks have played a key role in this form of interaction with the news, Facebook in particular.

This pattern looks like it’s changing though, according to a report undertaken by Kantar Media on behalf of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford. The research fieldwork was undertaken prior to the Cambridge Analytica revelations. It covered four countries: Brazil, Germany, the UK and the US.

From Facebook to messaging apps

According to the research, people are now retreating to the relative safety of messaging apps due to a combination of privacy fears, content clutter, declining relevance and exposure risk. Facebook’s relatively recent algorithmic push towards prioritising “meaningful social interaction” is also a factor in the general drift away from news discussion on the platform.

Online disinformation or so-called ‘fake news’ is also playing its part in creating wariness when it comes to news on Facebook. However, the research did note that users still value the platform for surfacing news stories. The difference now is that people prefer to socialise said news on WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger. Younger people are increasingly using Instagram and Snapchat for similar purposes.

The report said: “Messaging apps provide an antidote to the problems that arise when engaging with news in Facebook. They feel personal and intimate – rather like Facebook once felt – and the news that is shared feels more relevant. They also feel more immediate and allow greater freedom of expression because they shield users from the public glare of open platforms.”

Figures from the study show that Facebook as a news platform has reached a peak, with Germany using it the least overall and Brazil’s use of it for this purpose dropping from 67pc to 52pc from 2014 to 2018.

Migration to WhatsApp

WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, has become extremely popular in Brazil as a news discussion tool. In 2014, 15pc of those surveyed used the platform in this way, and that figure has shot up to 48pc. Other countries saw much less dramatic increases from smaller initial figures, but increases nonetheless.

One Brazilian respondent said: “Even [if] you may disagree with your friends on WhatsApp, friends are able to keep that good level of respect. Everybody shares their opinion and anyone who disagrees can joke about it. It’s a lighter mood to debate news with friends on WhatsApp than on Facebook.”

In general, participants didn’t feel as though they had been affected by ‘fake news’ but were instead worried about others being misled. Many of the study participants discussed the need to research and do their homework about suspect stories online.

While messaging apps are perceived as safer enclaves to discuss news, it is clear that this may not always be the case globally. As recently as July, reports surfaced about WhatsApp being used to circulate messages that led to mob killings. It’s clear that as people migrate from one source to another, the problems soon migrate along with them.

For news organisations, the challenge now is to determine how to connect with audiences as they continue to migrate from open to closed platforms, while maintaining financial viability at the same time.

Facebook on a web browser. Image: JaysonPhotography/Shutterstock

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects