How Facebook Wins When You Argue With ‘Friends’ About Gaza

Source: Thinkstock
Source: Thinkstock

In the past few weeks, it’s likely that your Facebook feed has taken on a very different tone than the routine photos of people’s children or pets, quiz results, shared listicles, and occasional links to a news article or piece of social commentary. Instead, many users’ News Feeds are peppered with articles, rants, and pages on Israel and Hamas, all perpetuating the poster’s particular brand of unique (or not-so-unique, and sometimes not-so-well-informed) commentary. In an article by The New York Times titled, “Facebook’s Change of Face,” Katherine Rosman makes the same, increasingly common observation about the social network. In addition to sharing their usual BuzzFeed posts and passing along the typical Upworthy videos, users are becoming more and more engaged in sharing articles about unfolding news events, adding their commentary, and opening up issues of national and international politics and news up for furious debate. But Facebook, for the moment, isn’t necessarily agreeing with users’ assessments that they’re seeing more of this politically motivated sharing of news articles. Justin Osofsky, Facebook’s vice president for operations and partnerships, told The New York Times that the type of content that users post on Facebook is neither more nor less “newsy” than it has been in the past. “People use Facebook for the things that matter to them most,” he said to Rosman. “That includes celebrating a friend’s birthday and important news developments.” Osofsky noted that when the U.S. government shut down last fall, 17 million users had 45 million interactions related to the shutdown within its first three days. During this summer’s World Cup, 350 million users generated three billion posts, comments, and likes related to the event. In the three weeks leading up to the publication of Rosman’s article on August 8, 24 million people generated more than 100 million interactions related to the conflict in Israel and Palestine. That sounds like a lot of “newsy” posts, likes, and comments. While Facebook might not want to characterize users’ activity on the network as increasingly newsy, it can’t deny that the traffic the social network refers to other sites, via the articles and other content that users posts, is increasing. In a recent report, social media analytics firm Shareaholic declared Facebook “the social network to end all social networks.” In June 2014, Facebook drove 23.39 percent of all visits to sites within Shareaholic’s network, up from 21.25 percent in March. Of the top eight social networks that Shareaholic analyzes — Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, StumbleUpon, Reddit, YouTube, Google+, and LinkedIn — Facebook was the only one to drive a greater share at the end of the second-quarter than at the end of the first, meaning that its referral traffic is the only one to have grown during the quarter. “Simply put,” Shareaholic’s Danny Wong writes, “Facebook is winning the referrals war because users can’t seem to get enough of content shared by close friends and relatable acquaintances” — even when such content sparks fierce debate and the occasional blocking of a “friend,” or at least the less drastic action of hiding the offender’s post from appearing in the News Feed. Chartbeat, which provides real-time analytics for content companies, also sought to quantify the degree to which Facebook drives users’ consumption of news. The site used a recent Facebook outage as an experiment, and investigated what happened to web traffic when Facebook wasn’t there as a referral source during the time when the site was briefly unavailable. In a blog post, Chartbeat’s Josh Schwartz noted that traffic to news sites dropped by three percent, as measured by Chartbeat’s analytics across 10,000 tracked domains. Schwartz said that overall mobile traffic was down 8.5 percent, while desktop traffic increased 3.5 percent. Schwartz wrote:

“In short, then: our brief world without Facebook looked a bit different, albeit in predictable ways. Significantly less news was consumed on phones, slightly more homepages were visited on desktops, and 30 minutes later, when Facebook came back online, traffic returned to normal.”

A drop of three percent in traffic to news sites is pretty significant. It’s interesting to note that “normal” for Facebook does include the consumption of news. In March, the Pew Research Journalism Project reported that half of Facebook users get news from the site. Facebook has the largest reach of any social network in the U.S., and overall, three in ten adults get at least some news from Facebook. However, the report found that actually getting news on Facebook is an incidental experience — meaning that people don’t actually go to Facebook with the intention of catching up on news. Instead, 78 percent of Facebook users report that they see and read news when they’re on Facebook for other reasons. Only 34 percent say that they like or follow a news organization or an individual journalist, which could surface news-related posts in their News Feed. That suggests that the news that most Facebook users see is being posted by their friends. While entertainment news tops the list of the topics that Facebook news consumers regularly see on the social network — 73 percent of Facebook news consumers see news about entertainment — 55 percent report regularly seeing news on national government and politics, and 39 percent report seeing international news, higher than you might expect if you were thinking that Facebook is mostly for photos of people’s kids, but an unsurprising number when you take into account the ubiquity of posts and arguments on topics like the conflict in Palestine and Israel. Further, Pew found that engagement with the news is becoming a key part of the social network experience across social networks. 50 percent of social network users said that they shared or reposted stories, images, or videos related to news events, and 46 percent said that they discussed a news issue or event. The catch is that users who visit a news site through Facebook have far lower engagement with the site than those that visit the news site directly, and while Facebook can help an individual story gain more readers, visitors who arrive to a news site from Facebook spend an average of one minute and 41 seconds on the site, versus the four minutes and 36 seconds spent by a user who visits the site directly. So while the number of visitors that a social network refers to other sites might be a metric that marketers look at when deciding where to place their ads and energy, it’s certainly not the only metric to consider. In its 2014 Internet Trends report, released in May, Kleiner Perkins Caulfield Byers noted that Facebook led among social media traffic referrals, per Shareaholic’s analytics, and compiled a list of the news publishers with the top distribution on Facebook. In April, BuzzFeed (which, for the record, does “real news” in addition to its more famous/infamous quizzes and listicles) led in number of Facebook interactions at almost 39 million. The Huffington Post followed with 28 million, and ABC News, Fox News, and NBC gathered 19 million, 15 million, and 12 million interactions, respectively. (For the curious: the top Twitter news publishers in the same period were BBC, The New York Times, Mashable, ABC News, and CNN.) Users share articles, lists, and videos from each of these sites on their Facebook profile, and from there they show up in friends’ News Feeds, where they gather comments from those that agree or disagree — comments that, particularly on topics like the conflict in Israel and Palestine, often erupt into heated arguments that read more like shouting matches than attempts at civil discussion. But while news publishers benefit from all of this posting, sharing, commenting, and conflict — which can drive more traffic to their articles, if not to other places on their sites — referrals aren’t the objective for sites like Facebook. Facebook’s interest is in keeping users’ attention and interactions on Facebook — where it can more easily keep them engaged in its own ecosystem (including its advertisements.) So some news publishers, like BuzzFeed, are experimenting with content that’s made and published directly on Facebook, instead of posted to BuzzFeed and then shared to Facebook, and finding that that content performs remarkably well. But in a piece responding to Mike Isaac’s reporting that BuzzFeed is experimenting with an idea called BuzzFeed Distributed — a team of 20 people that would produce content that resides natively and exclusively on other platforms – The Awl’s Matt Buchanan pointed out that as people share more content on social networking sites like Facebook, they care less about its origin. He envisions a future where all producers’ content will be distributed through the same medium, a “viewfinder” of sorts, “probably one owned by Facebook, sort of like the screen on the back of an airplane seat.” If users stop looking to specific sites for information, and instead consume it incidentally, as the Pew report found that Facebook users already do with news, then Facebook or a similar site or app will simply be the platform through which they can scroll through multiple channels until they stumble across something that catches their interest.  While that vision doesn’t bode well for the future of content producers as brands, such a future would be even worse for the informed news consumer (a species which, some would argue after perusing their Facebook feeds, is already a dying breed.) With news breaking constantly, it’s easy to spread misinformation and false characterizations of photos and videos. Most users aren’t apt to check their sources or spend much time verifying information. Reuters even reported recently that a study found that 70 percent of Facebook users click on news stories because they’re interested in the topic, while only 20 percent read a story based on the news organization that produced it. Depending on whom you ask, different users characterize the influx of posts and Facebook arguments about political issues as either a good medium for opposing opinions that are often left unaddressed by traditional media, or as a platform for people to start hateful or misinformed arguments on issues that are already divisive even with intelligent commentary and productive discussion. Like any other tool, social media exposes both the best and worst in human nature. As Facebook enables people to post their opinions on politics, our reactions to news are shifting away from real, thoughtful conversations and more towards series of posts where people assert their opinions — opinions that they’re loath to change regardless of what information commenters present. But Facebook itself stands to win, either way, as it increasingly becomes a platform for people to consume news, start discussions, or make declarations about news and political events. Facebook’s goal is to become more and more central to users’ online habits, both on mobile and desktop devices, to keep them constantly engaged in its system of apps to gather data on them and serve them ads. If you spend more time arguing about politics and news with your Facebook friends, the social network counts that a victory — regardless of who wins the argument, or how many people really thoroughly read the article in your post that they’re so furiously debating. 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