What Happens After Social Media and Journalism Break Up
And why Twitter is becoming the new Facebook
Lenin said, "There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen." The quote seems to apply to the past 10 days of the media world. There was the sudden firing of Fox News' Tucker Carlson, as well as the somewhat more expected firing of CNN's Don Lemon. But cable news personalities come and go; cable news seems here to stay. A more lasting development is the end of the marriage between social media and journalism.
On Apr. 20, BuzzFeed announced it was shutting down its news division, which had broken hundreds of stories and won a Pulitzer Prize. It was also known for light stories that spread virally through social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, gaining millions of pageviews.
Buzzfeed's big bet was that it could subsidize a news business by relying on massively viral posts spread through social platforms. Both news and lighter content were given away for free without a paywall. For a while, this strategy seemed to work and made the company a media darling. The company's CEO, Jonah Peretti, turned down a $650 million offer from Disney in 2013, according to former Buzzfeed News Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith's new book, Traffic. A few years after this offer, Facebook started to pivot away from news and Buzzfeed went through rounds of layoffs, its stock price dwindled, and finally, it closed.
Outgoing editor-in-chief of Buzzfeed News Karolina Waclawiak said, "It's deeply concerning that the only way to have a sustainable news business is to put journalism behind a paywall. The implication is that only people who can afford to pay for it will have access to high quality information while everyone else will need to parse through rampant misinformation that is widely shared across social platforms."
She's right. The only way to build a sustaining news business is to have subscribers pay for it. The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and subscription platforms like Substack (which hosts Public Sphere) have reliable business models. Relying on social traffic to draw advertisers does not work anymore. (Public Sphere gets little traffic from Twitter or Facebook.)
According to the Pew Research Center, in 2021, about half of all Americans report that they get their news through social platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok. That's likely to be still true, but the question is from whom. Increasingly, the answer is less likely to be sources of reliable journalism like the New York Times, but sources of misinformation and propaganda.
Around the same time that Buzzfeed News shuttered, I, and thousands of other Twitter users in the media, lost our blue check marks indicating that we were verified users of the platform. Verification was valuable because it helped sort reliable information from misinformation. (For instance, recently I wanted to look for information on Twitter about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's health after he canceled election rallies, and a lot of unsourced information showed up in my search results.)
Meanwhile, sources of propaganda and misinformation sponsored by authoritarian states have gotten boosts from Twitter. According to the Digital Forensic Research Lab, multiple state-media accounts from Russia, China, and Iran experienced large recent increases in their number of followers as the result of a Mar. 29 algorithm change. On Apr. 9, Elon Musk tweeted, "All news is to some degree propaganda. Let people decide for themselves." On Apr. 21, NPR confirmed that Twitter had indeed stopped throttling these state-sponsored accounts. (Incidentally, NPR quit Twitter after being misleadingly labeled as "government-sponsored;" the label is now gone, but NPR is still off Twitter.)
Twitter under Musk will likely turn into something like Facebook: a loud echo chamber where it is difficult to sort fact from fiction. On Facebook, the best performing posts are not often from the likes of The New York Times and CNN, but from publishers who thrive on conflict. The Twitter account "Facebook's Top 10," created by New York Times columnist Kevin Roose showing the best-performing posts on the site, often features conservative personalities like Dan Bongino, Sean Hannity, and Dnesh D'Souza.
Couples counseling will not save the marriage between social media and journalism; it's over. Platforms never loved journalism back as much as journalism loved the platforms. The question is who will? The answer is -- and always has been -- the audience. Journalism has survived by doing good work and gaining an audience who pays, and that old formula is the only one that works.
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