The US media has more reason than ever to be worried about Facebook

Soon to be America’s largest news platform?
Soon to be America’s largest news platform?
Image: Reuters/Dado Ruvic
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Facebook’s influential “trending” news feed has gone through the wringer lately. After being accused of being far less organic than the public was led to believe; politicians, media outlets, and users have questioned the ethics of Facebook’s pseudo-journalistic practices, which reportedly falsely inflated some news stories over others. Facebook, for its part, said it found “no evidence of systemic political bias” in its story selection, but is putting additional safeguards in place to keep it honest.

You might wonder why Facebook, a social network, is being held to the same level of transparency that news organizations are. But, the fact is, social media has rapidly become a major news source for millions of Americans, and we should know how it’s being manipulated.

More than ever, people in the US are getting their news through social networks like Facebook.

A majority of U.S. adults—62%—say they now get news from social media, and 18% of them do so often, Pew Research Center recently found, based on a 4,600-person survey conducted with Knight Foundation in 2016. That’s up from 49% of US adults who saw news on social media in 2012, based on a slightly different Pew survey question.

And, most commonly, those who get news from social media get it from Facebook. Forty-four percent of US adults surveyed said they use Facebook for news. The next most-used outlet—YouTube—was used by just 10% of people for news.

Now, most Facebook users aren’t actually going to the site for news. They just happen upon it while doing other things. The social network pushes news through its trending feed and reportedly pays prominent outlets like The New York Times to publish on its live video player, which is heavily promoted, so this isn’t surprising. But a good chunk, 38% of Facebook’s news users, also look for news on the site. Appearing on the news feeds of Facebook’s users has become increasingly linked to the bottom line of news outlets, as readers abandon their home pages of websites.

Other social platforms, like Reddit, Twitter, and LinkedIn, are even more popular among news seekers. They have fewer users, but larger shares that come to them specifically for news.

Fortunately for publishers, and maybe the American public, those who get news on social media also still get news from journalistic sources, like news sites, newspapers, TV, and radio, fairly regularly. But they do so less often then the general public.