Most of us are aware of the proliferation of news on social networking websites. It take up our news feeds, and it’s available at the touch of a finger. Anytime. Anywhere. Where did this popular internet innovation come from? And what are the effects? We’re so bombarded with news articles, most of us are barely aware of which news is real and which news is fake.
So today, we’re going to look at the genesis of social news sharing. We’ll see how sharing news online has progressed over time in the media.
Then, we’ll talk about the key business that dominates the social news sharing arena.
Lastly, we’ll discuss who exactly is benefitting from the transformative effects of social news sharing – politically, economically and socially – and who is suffering the consequences.
THE ORIGINS OF NEWS SHARING – FROM TRADITIONAL TO TODAY
Historically, transactions of sharing have bounded us socially (Swart, Peters, & Broersma, 2019). In fact, sociologist Mauss argued that informational gifting comes with the expectancy of receiving something in return (Carrier, 1991), and this is a facet of sharing economics that trended throughout history.
Before the internet, traditional media controlled the production and distribution of news in a top-down approach. News exposure was determined by editors, and diffusion relied upon:
- Broadcast television
However, it’s important to point out the nexus between digitalisation and the breakdown of traditional news sharing business models. The 21st century, its technological advances, and the rise of platformisation (Evens & Donders, 2018) has brought new cultures of news consumption. New revenue models that drive growth in digital advertising have impacted traditional methods of news sharing, creating a paradigm shift in the historical trends of sharing news.
“In the last decade, the consumption, production and distribution of news has been radically altered by the dynamics of social media and industry development” (Martin & Dwyer, 2019, p.2)
Notably, “more than 2.4 billion internet users, nearly 64.5 percent, receive breaking news from Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Snapchat and Instagram instead of traditional media” (Martin, 2018). These big media organisations demonstrate how it is more profitable to use data and algorithms to direct news content that interests users towards them (Burgess & Banks, 2014).
As conveyed in the graphic below, according to the News and Media Research Centre, 48% of Australians in 2020 use online and social media as their main source of news content while only 6% rely on traditional forms of print media for their main source of news.
Online and social media is the main source of news for Australians.
Image: News and Media Research Centre, 2020 – Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.
Traditional media organisations have consequently attempted to extend their lifespans by moving to digital-first production models, but ultimately rely on the affordances of social media platforms to distribute their content.
For example, in 2017, US YouTuber Logal Paul uploaded to YouTube which revealed a man’s body hanging from a tree in Japan’s ‘Suicide Forest’. Debate immediately ensued on social sites like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Reddit with users condemning Paul for using his controversial discovery as a facet through which to gain views and subscribers (Martin & Dwyer, 2019).
American Youtuber Logan Paul in June 2019, USA.
Image: Erik Drost – Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.
This series of events highlights the new networked political economy and cultural politics of social media news sharing” (Martin & Dwyer, 2019, p.2).
Martin & Dwyer (2019) note how between 7 and 50% of traffic to major news websites in fact derives from social media sharing. The Nine-Fairfax merger of 2018 and the Bauer-Pacific merger of 2020 provide clear evidence that Australia’s commercial news media are fighting for survival as global social networking giants increasingly extract ad revenue out of the local market.
Bauer Media Group acquired Pacific Magazines in 2020
The phenomenon of sharing news on social media in our increasingly globalised and technologically advanced world represents John’s (2016) notion of the ‘sharing economy’ and has led to social media companies today reaping the advertising data and attention from our own informational sharing activities online.
FACEBOOK MONOPOLY ON NEWS
News sharing on social platforms has become somewhat of a monopoly in recent decades. Let’s take a critical look at the key corporate entity whose technological algorithmic affordances are shaping how we utilise their platforms. Namely, Facebook.
As shown in the Statistica graph to the right, with 2.6 billion monthly active users as of July 2020, Facebook is the most popular social network. In 2017 alone, Facebook and Google captured half of the world’s online advertising revenue (Martin & Dwyer, 2019).
Most popular social networks, Oct 2020
In fact, four of the biggest social media platforms are actually owned by Facebook, including WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Instagram.
Facebook’s affordances, including the ‘share’, ‘like’ and ‘comment’ buttons, are simple tools that simplify and facilitate the distribution of news content across the platform (Kümpel, Karnowski & Keyling., 2015). With just one click, users can share news with their networks.
As Swart, Peters and Broersma (2019) note, “as technologies simplify the dissemination of news, audiences can now influence the distribution of news themselves”.
Thus, we can acknowledge there are serious questions of power at play in the realm of communications media. We need to analyse these through the lens of critical information ecologies, to understand how the transformative effects of social news sharing are impacting society both positively and negatively.
See below for this analysis.
Economic Effects – Users
Despite the financial liberation for users who gain free access to news via social platforms, algorithmic targeting results in the economic gain of advertisers and platform owners at the detriment of individual users who are unaware they’re personal information is being exploited.
Economic Effects – Platform Owners & Advertisers
Digital platforms generate revenue through the collection and analysis of the data of people using their services. This data is used to enhance and extend the services they provide and is also given to advertisers in return for profit. Advertisers then use “personalised, behaviourally targeted advertising models” (Martin & Dwyer, 2019, p.4) to target users.
Economic Effects – Journalists & Clickbait
Furthermore, traditional news organizations have been forced to move online to keep up. Social news sharing has become a vital business strategy for journalists. Online news sites are increasingly relying on “referrals from social media to improve their website traffic, article views, and ultimately their economic success” (Kümpel, Karnowski & Keyling., 2015, p.1).
Accordingly, journalists now rely on powerful platforms to become discoverable and for effective diffusion of their work. Data and statistics in terms of clicks and page views is driving the news content being written and shared, resulting in ‘clickbait‘.
See below for examples of clickbait, and how headlines are used to sensationalise a story, provide a teaser, or arouse expectations in readers:
The 10 simple money tricks to help you save THOUSANDS 🤑💰
I Can’t Believe I’m Saying This, But “Australian Idol” Is Launching A Comeback
Embarrassing truth behind Meghan and Harry wedding photos
Political Effects – Control & Exploitation
The ability of social platforms to disseminate news is not just a technology of freedom nor does it just have economic consequences, because social news sharing has been used as a political tool for control and exploitation and has been linked to real-world voting consequences.
Political Effects – Voters & 2016 Election
In the 2016 US election, pro-Trump stories about Hillary Clinton suffering from a serious illness, and paying the Islamic State USD $400 million circulated on Facebook and Twitter, which later were proven to be false. Specifically, an Ohio State University study suggests that 4% of 2012 Obama supporters were impacted by their belief in fake news stories and consequently dissuaded from voting for Clinton in 2016. The circulation of these fake news stories represents how the political stability of a country can be affected by social news sharing and the spread of fake news (Rampersad & Althiyabi, 2020).
Political Effects – Education & Class: Filter Bubble
Here, we can see the notion of the ‘filter bubble’, which is an algorithm that decides which stories users see based on what it predicts users would like. Ultimately, filter bubbles enable users to connect more deeply with people that think like they do but disconnect users from opposing points of views and values.
As such, filter bubbles are confining users to their own political views, contributing to an increasingly large divide between opposing political views – not just in the US but worldwide. With the common view that the uneducated disenfranchised are the most likely to believe fake news, ultimately social news sharing and the spread of fake news is benefitting the higher-educated upper classes (Rampersad & Althiyabi, 2020).
58% of Australians across all generations believe that digital platforms should block misinformation, particularly misleading political ads.
Social Effects: Globalisation & Interconnectedness
The beneficial societal effects of social news sharing are undeniable. For the everyday user, particularly those with family living overseas, access breaking news articles from around the world at the touch of a finger is incredibly advantageous.
Contexts that previously existed separately are now collapsing upon one another (Swart, Peters, & Broersma, 2019), allowing for a global interconnectedness that didn’t exist prior to social news sharing.
Social Effects: Reinforcement of Biases
However, along with these positives, there are negatives associated with social news sharing, particularly in relation to the filter bubble.
News sharing on social media reinforces biases. This is reducing the likelihood for users to post on topics they don’t agree with, and therefore contributing to the fostering of echo chambers (Martin & Dwyer, 2019).
CONCLUDING REMARKS: WHAT HAVE WE LEARNED?
- Transactions of sharing have bounded us socially throughout history
- The introduction of social networking platforms signified the breakdown of traditional news sharing business models
Facebook Power & Control
- Facebook is the key owner and controller of social news sharing
- Economically, platform owners and advertisers benefit from social news sharing, while users are unknowingly being exploited for profit
- Traditional media organisations and journalists are suffering from the economical consequences of advertising revenue loss, turning to clickbait via social platforms to garner article views
- Politically, powerful political parties worldwide have the ability to sway voters via algorithmic methods of sharing news
- Uneducated populations are falling for ‘fake news’ stories
- Socially, context collapse has allowed for a global interconnectedness where users are connected to breaking news stories worldwide
- Filter bubbles and echo chambers are contributing to the reinforcement of biases within social groups
For more information about social news sharing, head to the list of sources below.
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