Content sharing from traditional news sites such as The Washington Post and The Financial Times have risen significantly, with subscriptions to the former more than tripling in the last 12 months. This is in stark contrast to historically heavily shared posts from sites such as BuzzFeed, which have seen a substantial reduction in engagement, with many of BuzzFeed's posts receiving less than 90% fewer shares than just two years ago. Sites such as Harvard Business Review and The Washington Post are also paywalled or partly paywalled, which traditionally used to be a hindrance to engagement.
This sharp reduction in shares and engagement by many of Facebook’s users has much to do with changes in not only the perception of Facebook as a media provider but the subsequent algorithm changes the company has made in response to this erosion of trust.
The Cambridge Analytica scandal had a significant impact on how we view and trust media sites and this distrust has seeped into the general public’s perception of news in general. This change is evident in the prevalence of the phrase “fake news” and that only 34% of people now trust news sourced from search engines, according to Reuters Institute.
Trust and engagement in Facebook has, however, suffered months and years leading before the scandal for other reasons such as the prevalence of "clickbait" titles. Facebook was the biggest provider of digital content in 2015 and sites which did well on Facebook tended to be the most shared sites such as BuzzFeed for whom it was common for a single quiz to garner millions of shares. Both Facebook and those sites are now suffering and are having to adapt their strategy.
Speaking at Innovation Enterprise's Digital Publishing Innovation Summit 2018 in London, Buzzsumo director Steve Rayson explained the changes Facebook has made in response to the public’s lack of trust and the effect it has had on engagement with the platform and the content it promotes.
Steve Rayson speaking at Innovation Enterprise's Digital Publishing Innovation Summit 2018.
In a number of algorithm changes which began in the middle of 2017 and culminated with more significant changes in January 2018 (all of which Facebook notified the public once instituted), not only shows Facebook’s awareness of these flaws but hints of the image they are now hoping to embody. These changes include the demotion of "spammy links", a prioritization of content shared by friends and family; prioritization of informative posts; a reduction in clickbait headlines; the demotion of engagement bait; and a prioritization of faster loading web pages.
These algorithm changes, along with the intense content saturation currently being witnessed, have had a significant and rippling effect on the digital content landscape. BuzzFeed, for example, while it had taken a hit in the amount of engagement it garnered, is still doing well because of its pivot toward more investigative journalistic exploits. Its food site, BuzzFeed Tasty, has also been performing significantly well, as food-related posts currently outperform other types of digital content. Right-wing sites have also complained that the changes have negatively affected them disproportionately due to their inability to be considered to be “trusted news” by Facebook.
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Rayson predicted there will be an explosion in content in coming years, especially when considering advances in AI within content writing. An AI owned by The Washington Post published 850 articles in 2017 alone. With all this noise, it has become more of a priority than ever to be able to source legitimate stories than ever before, which is why, despite being paywalled, traditionally reputable sources are doing so well. Individuals, no more than Facebook, want to be caught sharing fake news. Becoming an authoritative source of content is one of the few ways left to drive engagement in today’s world.
Steve Rayson was speaking today at Innovation Enterprise's Digital Publishing Innovation Summit 2018.