Facebook failing to hold peoples’ attention with real news, survey finds

The use of Facebook and other social media platforms to read about and discuss current affairs is beginning to fall in the US, the Reuters Institute’s Digital News Report has found.

Instead, people are increasingly turning to more private apps, such as encrypted messaging service WhatsApp and image- and video-based platforms Snapchat and Instagram. In many countries, WhatsApp has surpassed Twitter as a place to find news, the report says.

In the US, use of Facebook to find news has fallen 9 per cent since 2017 (20 per cent among younger people) and in the UK its use has fallen by 2 per cent. In most countries, “the picture is one of decline”, the authors wrote in the report.

While many still use Facebook and other highly public social networks to find news stories, discussion about news is moving to private messaging apps. According to survey respondents, they feel less restricted and vulnerable discussing current affairs within the privacy of these apps, while expressing opinions on current affairs on Facebook can lead to acrimony.

The proportions of people accessing news via WhatsApp were higher in countries such as Turkey and Malaysia, which suffer from growing state censorship of the media.

“We’re seeing many switching their focus to more personal, private spaces like messaging apps for sharing and discussing news,” said Nic Newman, lead author of the report and research associate at the Reuters Institute.

“This gives people more control over where and how they engage, but also potentially makes public debate and news distribution even more fragmented and opaque.”

The gradual decline in the past year could be brushed off as a small change in the volatile digital media landscape as consumers experiment with different ways of consuming news. The 74,000 survey respondents across 37 countries were polled by YouGov both before and after Facebook was hit with criticism for its algorithms allegedly promoting misleading news content, after which the social media company adjusted its News Feed algorithm to demote content produced by publishers in favour of posts from friends.

This algorithm change could also have played a part in the decline of Facebook as a means of accessing news, the study suggested.

Meanwhile, in a 454-page report submitted to Congress in order to answer lawmakers’ questions about the company’s activities, Facebook has disclosed that it collects an enormous amount of user data not previously known. This includes tracking the location of the mouse, and details of battery levels, software versions, available storage space, operating systems, purchases on third-party websites, files names on your system and nearby devices on the same Wi-Fi network.

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