"It's deja vu all over again." New York Yankees Hall of Famer Yogi Berra coined this head-scratching expression that neatly sums up the latest challenge media professionals are facing with Facebook. The social media giant is changing its News Feed after an intense year of criticism about the role the company played in the "fake news" epidemic that may or may not have swayed the last presidential election in favor of Donald Trump.
Mark Zuckerberg’s plan to drastically change the structure of users’ Feeds to favor less content from businesses and publishers and more content from actual human friends and acquaintances has been described as dropping "the equivalent of a nuclear bomb on the media industry."
In a statement posted on Facebook, Zuckerberg explained the company is making these changes for social good and for the mental health of its users: "The research shows that when we use social media to connect with people we care about, it can be good for our well-being," he said. "On the other hand, passively reading articles or watching videos — even if they're entertaining or informative — may not be as good."
This is a potential death knell for publishers, which have already seen a substantial decline in the organic reach of their posts and may see a further reduction of 80% in page reach, clicks, and engagement as a result of the changes.
Does this mean that Americans will return to traditional news sources for their daily scoop? It seems unlikely. Recent data conducted by Propeller Insights on behalf of tech PR firm Bospar shows just how reliant Americans have become on Facebook for their news. The data revealed that Baby Boomers were the only age demographic that did not list Facebook as their number one choice; (Boomers prefer ABC and CBS).
Otherwise, almost regardless of how you slice or dice the data, Americans overwhelmingly turn to Facebook for their news:
American men say Facebook is their first choice for daily news, followed by Fox News, NBC, and ABC;
American women also turn to Facebook for news, followed by ABC and Fox News;
Facebook is the number one choice for gay men, followed by CNN, Twitter, and NBC;
Facebook is the number one choice for lesbian women followed by CBS and Fox News;
Republicans prefer Fox News to Facebook, but only by a small margin (41% versus 37%) followed by ABC and NBC;
Democrats named Facebook their favorite place for news, followed by CNN and ABC.
Taken as a whole, 42% of Americans rely on Facebook as their primary source of daily news. This is followed by Fox News, ABC, CNN, CBS, and NBC.
Now that Facebook has returned the feed to its intended use—i.e., cat videos, personal updates from college friends, and photos of your Aunt Maggie’s miniature pony Zelda—where will people turn for news? Probably Facebook.
As Joshua Benton pointed out in a recent article for Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab: "At least some publisher-shared content will still show up in people’s News Feeds. And friends and family can still share news stories all they want."
That means the echo chamber quality of Facebook will get more pronounced by the company you keep. So if you have a lot of friends who believe in alien abductions for example, your newsfeed will start resembling The X-Files with more Mulder and less Scully. In other words, there may be fewer dissenting or neutral viewpoints in Americans’ feeds.
To plan for the future, public relations strategists should remember what happened when Craigslist took away the ad revenue newspapers depended on: outlets shuttered and journalists lost their jobs. That means surviving outlets will rely even more on contributed content to provide their readers with a baseline of material. Media engagement strategies will become even more tailored to different audiences to account for the likely media balkanization. Consumers will be even more encouraged and incentivized to share content they like.
But now there’s a technological twist to this latest upheaval that gives media a fighting chance. Publishers and brands will be able to invest in artificial intelligence platforms that engage directly with their audiences with increasingly sophisticated targeting and call-to-action strategies. Twitter and LinkedIn will become more important as publishers "lean in" to social media outlets other than Facebook. Video production will further ramp up to engage with audiences. Ultimately, media will engage in a survival of fittest that relies more on technology than talent.
Yogi Berra had an expression for this too: "It ain't over till it's over."
Curtis Sparrer is principal at Bospar.