The News, According to Facebook

According to a 2017 study by the Pew Research Group, 45 percent of American adults get their news from Facebook. If you zoom out, 67 percent get their news from social media in general. If you kept up with the news at all over the last two years, you know that’s led to problems.

Facebook noticeably updated its algorithm earlier this year to prioritize content from friends and family over publishers. For the millions of Americans who rely on the social network as their source of worldly information, this inevitably means they’re already going to agree with a lot of what they’re seeing online. Facebook has already come under fire for perpetuating the spread of fake news, a problem the algorithm changes were supposed to fix. Instead, it’s ensured that users can stay safely in their existing filter bubbles.

To get a sense of just what my world would look like without any other social media influences, I decided to do an experiment: For one day, I could only get my news from Facebook.

A bubble unpopped

As a social media editor, this wasn’t the easiest task. Fortunately, we have tools like Buffer and Tweetdeck, so I can take care of my job without needing to see everything coming across Twitter, Snapchat, Reddit, and the like.

On Facebook, my feed is typically dominated by dogs. I follow groups like Dogspotting and Cool Dog Group because with so much insanity floating around the world on a daily basis, it does feel comforting when 80 percent of my newsfeed consists of animal photos and videos. (This is also a good time to remind everyone that Facebook groups are still an effective way to reach your audience.) As hard as the news can be to digest, however, I have found myself missing some of the timely, tougher stories that Facebook has deemed “less friendly.”

I do follow a fair amount of publishers, such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, Vice, and the Guardian. But as expected, I had to scroll through all of the friend statuses, shared photos, and requests for recommendations before I came across a single news article. Even then, it was a New York Times clip my father had shared about the effect of the recession and housing crisis on the middle class—not a post from the Times directly. So before I could even register the title of the piece, I saw his commentary about it, which I happened to agree with. The bubble remained un-popped.

I embarked on this quest after the New York primary elections and in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence, so after this link, I did start to see a fair amount of posts from my friends about those current events. However, it was always accompanied by their commentary. Going back to the bubble effect: Most of my Facebook friends still share my political and social beliefs, so I usually agreed with their comments, but it did take pages of scrolling until I found a post without any personal biases attached.

After a few more dog photos, event announcements, and advertisements, I came across my first post from an actual publisher.

The article turned out to be a two-year-old personal essay by a woman who worked as a housekeeper and discovered some very personal things about her clients. Was it a fascinating and entertaining insight into a facet of New York that I don’t know much about? Yes. Would I count it as news? Not exactly.

Video reigns supreme

Next up was a video from Vice teasing a new documentary about knife crime in London. Vice’s content is often some of the most interesting and entertaining on my feed, and this effective video was no exception. I paused my scrolling to watch the entire preview, which ran four minutes and 29 seconds.

During my experiment, I noticed that most of the publishers I follow—aside from The Guardianwere more likely to post videos than text articles. Every company talks about investing in more video, even if that increasingly means firing other teams to “pivot.” Additionally, organic reach for brands and publishers has dropped and stayed low over the last few years. But if there’s one area that can still bring in strong reach, it’s video.

Even as I scrolled through Facebook hoping to come across news stories, I found myself more likely to stick with videos than to click on an article if the excerpt didn’t immediately grab me.

What did grab me as I kept scrolling was a video about the rise of Korean beauty masks in America, courtesy of Travel Insider, an off-shoot of Business Insider that pops up on my feed a lot. The clip takes viewers through the benefits of the masks and where to get them.

Travel Insider’s appeal comes from posts that are quick, flashy, and non-controversial. Unusual trend stories like this are catnip for Facebook’s algorithm because they tend to spark conversations and positive reactions. As users grow fatigued from all of the political polemics, that widespread appeal on a safer topic may have more of a chance to stand out.

Breaking news

Just when I thought I’d scrolled through every publisher post, my notifications blew up as I got three breaking news alerts from followed publishers about Rod Rosenstein’s resignation. This feature does set Facebook apart from other social networks.

When scrolling through social media channels, I assume that I’ll find out more about the world on Twitter. That’s where media members seem to hang out the most. Twitter was the original platform to include a “trending” section, and you can search #BreakingNews for latest updates, but Facebook has a much more direct notification system when news breaks.

But while endlessly scrolling through Facebook, I did come across more news than I expected, even if most of it was shared by my friends. (I suppose it also depends what you classify as “news.” Do I think hurricane updates count more than videos about face masks? Yes, but trend stories do have their place.)

Despite the biases of its algorithm that edges out certain publishers, I still think of Facebook as a place to find out what’s going on in the world. Its homepage is still the original News Feed, after all. But you have to put in effort to balance out what you’re going to see. I’ve tried to follow more news outlets and publishers that may not share the exact same political views as me.

So what’s my takeaway from the experiment? It’s not the worst place to start if you want to find out interesting information … as long as you know what to expect and have a willingness to do more research on whatever you come across.

Image by Glen Carrie / Unsplash

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