Despite the fact that I own a 3.3 million follower page, I can tell you that I have a love/hate relationship with Facebook. Because of Facebook, I’ve been able to get a conservative viewpoint in front of tens of millions of people I couldn’t have reached any other way. On the other hand, Facebook is a cruel mistress. Every page owner dreads the next “algorithm change” that may send his traffic plunging off a cliff for indecipherable reasons. You can have “penalties” that dramatically impact the traffic of your page for whatever reason Facebook decides, without even having a way of knowing what you did wrong. If there’s any kind of technical problem or you get a FALSE “community standards” violation that knocks you off Facebook (This is not uncommon), it’s nearly impossible to reach them through normal channels available to the general public.
Yet and still, nearly 40% of Americans get news off Facebook and another 22% receive news through other social media sources. Just to give you an idea of how big that number is, only 38% of Americans read a newspaper daily and that percentage seems to drop every year.
Is this change? Yes. Is it change for the better? In some ways, ABSOLUTELY. We no longer have a handful of biased media gatekeepers who control which information everyone sees. Different viewpoints and opinions can get out much more easily. Choice is more prevalent. All these things are important. So, to be clear, I AM NOT saying social media is a bad thing. Let me repeat that: I AM NOT saying social media is a bad thing. What I am saying is that minuses of social media are also enormous and they’re seldom discussed.
For one thing, most people choose to follow only news organizations that reinforce their existing ideological beliefs. In other words, both Right Wing News and Occupy Democrats may have huge Facebook presences, but there are undoubtedly relatively few people who follow both pages. This is extremely consequential because both pages tailor their news for very different audiences.
One is hostile to #blacklivesmatter and the other treats the group like heroes. One is likely to feature stories about illegal immigrants who commit crimes while the other is likely to feature stories about how illegals are good for America. One has nothing good to say about Hillary Clinton while the other talks about her as if she’s a combination of Rosa Parks and Susan B. Anthony.
Even if either page does a story that cuts against its typical ideological grain because of the nature of social media, it’s unlikely to reach a significant portion of its audience. Few conservatives are going to share a story about somebody accidentally shooting his kid with a gun just as few liberals are going to share a story about a gun saving an innocent victim from being raped. This creates a feedback loop that insures that people see very little news that they disagree with because the Facebook pages want more traffic and readers strongly prefer stories that reinforce their existing ideological biases. Worse yet, it has gotten to the point where people GET UPSET if they’re presented with news that conflicts with what they want to happen. As Steven Crowder has noted, point out that Donald Trump is behind in the polls and your timeline will fill with people screaming at you the same way liberals will catch flak for admitting that Hillary Clinton should have faced prosecution for her email scandal. So why serve up stories that your audience doesn’t want to read when the only thing you’re likely to get out of it is grief?
Meanwhile, if you run a political Facebook page, you are competing with cute kitten videos, the latest music video from Adele, and Kim Kardashian’s butt. If you can’t do headlines that can reel people in, they’re not going to read a story even if it’s fantastic. This is what led to so many clickbait headlines on Facebook before it cracked down. So why did Facebook pages do clickbait headlines? For the simplest reason imaginable: their audiences click on them. If there are a hundred people complaining in the comments section and 50,000 are clicking on the article, the message that page owners hear is, “Do more of this.” The more brazen the headline, the better it does. This is true across other platforms as well. The more outrageous you are, the more attention you get. Nowhere on Planet Earth does being crazy, hyper-obnoxious or arguing with people like a crazy homeless guy pay off like it does on Twitter.
Because the newspapers, magazines and cable TV networks are competing with social media for readers, this sort of thinking has bled over to them as well. TV shows are not quite as militant about it as social media websites because we’re evaluated by our audience on every post while they’re just evaluated on their show as a whole, but it still has a huge impact. So if you’re wondering why James O’Keefe’s latest blockbuster video isn’t breaking through on TV while a “Corgi vs. the Stairs” video is, that has a lot to do with it.
Additionally, Facebook rewards pages heavily for being the first to get news out. The same story that gets 100,000 views at 8 A.M. may get 3,000 at 10 A.M. Since there are a lot of pages that are on the ball and constantly updating their websites, even a hot story may produce relatively limited traffic if enough other pages move fast. In and of itself, this isn’t a problem. The real issue is that some unethical people have realized that there is an easy way to get around that.
Simply put, if they can’t find a story that’s new, they’ll either make one up, juice up the headline so much that it’s unrelated to the story or treat extremely questionable sources as trustworthy. We are to the point where some dodgy guy on twitter who claims to “have sources” is now considered to be a legitimate basis for a news story. To give you a real world example, earlier this week some goofball with an odd sense of humor tweeted out, “i love working at the post office in Columbus, Ohio and ripping up absentee ballots that vote for trump” and it ended up becoming the basis of a story on Gateway Pundit. Both Rush Limbaugh and Drudge apparently consider his website to be solid enough that they didn’t feel the need to check out the story. So both of them ran the story which turned out to be entirely based on some random guy’s mediocre attempt at humor in a tweet. This sort of thing regularly happens on both the Left and the Right because on social media, you are often rewarded for being wrong. Get a story horrifically wrong in an exciting way and you’ll get a huge surge of traffic and followers. Maybe a few people will be turned off or unfollow, but percentage wise, you’ll very seldom ever lose more than you gain. The only thing that stops people from churning out pure garbage is their conscience and not everyone seems to have one.
On top of all this, because social media is so centered on grabbing your attention, even if it’s for a brief time, “short and catchy” beats long and informative almost every time. It’s difficult to sum up a long, informative piece in 140 characters and no matter how good your 10,000 word article may be, nobody is going to read it on Facebook if the title isn’t eye catching. Even if people do click through, it’s debatable whether they’ll read through to the end. Just to give you an idea of how bad things have gotten, roughly 50% of your audience on a YouTube video will have tuned out by the 2-3 minute mark.
What social media does is give people the illusion of being immersed in information, but it’s just that – an illusion. Sure, social media gives people a more diverse group of news stories, but getting a majority of your news via social media makes about as much sense as getting most of your news through the Daily Show. The type of news you’re getting in that situation gives you such an incomplete picture that you may know less than when you started. That doesn’t mean you should tune out social media news because as I noted earlier, it does have value as an alternative to the bias in the MSM (For example, the James O’Keefe video I referenced earlier has almost 4 million views on YouTube). However, it also means that social media sources should be a balanced part of your news diet. Read some longer form pieces, check out some people you disagree with, absorb some books and you’ll know far more than the people who rely on social media to tell them what’s going on in the world.