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Facebook News Feed Puts Friends, Family First

News content is set to be de-prioritized

June 30, 2016

Facebook said it will de-emphasize content from digital publishers in its news feed, a move that caps a tumultuous month of debate over the social network’s role in the news ecosystem.

Primary Channel Used to Access News Content According to Internet Users Worldwide, by Age, Feb 2016 (% of respondents)

Facebook unveiled the decision in its corporate blog on Wednesday, saying it would increasingly prioritize user-generated content in its users’ news feeds, while reducing news-oriented content from digital publishers.

Facebook is a leading social platform for news consumption around the world, but consumers don’t necessarily turn to the platform for news.

For example, according to February 2016 polling by Pew Research Center, just 18% of US adults “often” get their news from social media, while an additional 26% do so “sometimes.”

Also in February, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford and YouGov found that while a majority of internet users worldwide under the age of 35 turn primarily to the internet for news, most don’t turn to social media for that purpose. Even among 18- to 24-year-olds, social media was the primary news source of just 28% of respondents. Just 5% of those over 55 in the 26 countries surveyed primarily got their news content on social channels.

Facebook is a major contributor to news consumption via social platforms, of course: 44% of respondents to the Reuters Institute survey said they had accessed news content on the largest social network in the world at some point in the past week, more than double the 19% who had seen news on YouTube or the 10% who had read news-related tweets.

Types of Video Content Watched on Facebook vs. YouTube Among US Internet Users, March 2016 (% of respondents)

Meanwhile, research on social media activities supports Facebook’s contention that the site is about keeping in touch with family and friends. About half of US college students ages 17 to 24 told ad tech firm Fluent in March 2016 they mostly used Facebook to stay in contact with family, as well as friends from high school, with an additional 38.6% saying their main reason was connecting with college friends. Just 5.0% said they were primarily concerned with following famous people, issues or interests.

Polling conducted by ThinkNow Research and Sensis among US Hispanic millennials similarly found that Facebook is about friendship. Among the 73% of the sample who used Facebook in June 2015, 85% did so to stay connected with friends while 83% were trying to stay connected with family. Getting the news was not a major reason for respondents to use the site.

And Cowen and Company found in March 2016 that 42% of US internet users had watched news-related video on Facebook in the past 30 days. In the same time period, two-thirds had watched video content from their family and friends.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that dialing down the news content on Facebook won’t translate to putting less news in front of many users. The Pew research also found that among social media users who do read the news on social sites, most (64%) do so on only one platform—and typically, that platform is Facebook. They do, however, turn to other news sources entirely: 39% of Facebook users who consume news on the site also do so on local TV channels, along with 33% who visit news websites, 25% who tune in to cable news channels and 15% who read print newspapers.

While it seems clear that the change at Facebook will have an immediate impact on publishers posting content to the site, it appears there will be less of an impact on publishers who rely on users to share their stories on the social platform, suggesting that a focus on shareable, viral stories will continue to drive many publishers’ decisions.

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