Social media needs to get its act together on news and transparency

Public frustration is growing, yet it’s still the main source of news for half of Irish people aged 18-44

If you are a Facebook user, chances are you get some of your news each week from stories in your newsfeed.

About half of Irish people aged 18-44 say social media is their main source of news, according to the 2020 Reuters Digital News Report for Ireland, and the numbers are about the same in the UK, according to a 2019 report from UK regulator Ofcom. A 2018 Pew Research study in the US indicated 68 per cent of American adults use social media for their news.

But, as has been highlighted now for years, the publishers that fund and generate much of the news linked to, lose out on the advertising revenue that supports its creation.

In 2020, most digital ad spend in the UK – 80 per cent, according to eMarketer – has gone to Google, Facebook or Facebook-owned Instagram, a steady increase year on year.

Challenge

Simply surviving is now the challenge for news organisations, as print sales drop and digital income fails to keep pace. And yet, majorities of people across most countries in studies such as that from Reuters, say trusted news sources are important, and demand for news remains high.

This has been especially true in 2020, when publishers’ online sites have seen huge spikes in readership from people seeking daily information on the arc of the pandemic. Yet already-skimpy income from digital ads has plunged.

At the same time, public and political frustration and anger with social media companies keeps on growing, not least because of the related issue of murky news sources and the easy spread of disinformation on social media – and the inadequate efforts of the giant platforms to address it.

A major US election during 2020 only increased public awareness of social media’s damaging role in enabling false, dangerous “news” campaigns.

People also recognise that local and national news is losing out – with local news being particularly har hit. It’s often far cheaper and easier for small businesses to place ads on Facebook or Google. And smaller local publishers don’t have the ability to fund a dedicated digital team to bring those ads directly to their publications.

Scrutiny

That’s meant the slow death of local news sources and a shutdown of reporting and scrutiny of local events, an alarming development for communities and for transparency and accountability.

The platforms know the public and political mood has shifted. They have been forced into some acknowledgement that they have created problems they must begin to address.

Recently, both Google and Facebook have moved to fund initiatives to offer different forms of support to publishers. Last month, Google announced it would steer $1 billion towards publishers over three years, to pay for news offered in its new Google News Showcase.

This week, Facebook announced it will roll out a news feature in January in the UK called Facebook News, a dedicated news tab on its app that will source and present news from a wide range of UK publishers (as well as from a Facebook team of contract journalists). It’s believed the deal will direct millions of pounds towards beleaguered news outlets.

In the US, where Facebook launched the feature earlier this year, the company says 95 per cent of the traffic it now steers to news websites comes from new readers.

Facebook also has had a programme running for some time that trains and supports journalists to cover local news, and announced further funding.

Efforts

While such efforts will provide some help to publishers in the form of desperately needed income and training supports, these have been long in coming from  platforms whose profits have been driven by content they have not created or funded ’til now.

Ultimately, these programmes are little more than plasters covering a suppurating wound, and fail to address the structural causes of the media destabilisation and growth in disinformation that impacts everyone.

The source of these festering issues lies in the way platforms make their money in the first place.

There’s the mass personal data collection we often don’t even know is occurring, and the vast, non-transparent global advertising networks that buy and sell that data, placing billions of ads in milliseconds across the web every day.

There’s the endlessly tweaked and revised search and placement algorithms that boost the worst, viral clickbait and are constantly gamed by bad actors to facilitate entire networks of disinformation.

There’s the lucrative business models that depend on minimal human oversight of any of these platforms and the platforms’ insistence that they are not legally liable for content, posts or comments (publishers are).

There’s the ability of millions of third party developers to harvest personal data through apps that have been shown to be inadequately vetted and scrutinised.

And lo: the platforms have only begun to offer these new support programmes at the same time that multiple countries – including the US and UK – have begun, or indicated an intention, to file lawsuits, expand regulation and increase punishments against both Google and Facebook.

We should look this gift horse in the mouth, and demand better.