Is Twitter really a news site?

Twitter now characterises itself as a news site rather than a social network – but is this just a rogue decision from them or a representation of the zeitgeist?

Back in April, Twitter moved its app from the ‘social networking’ category across to ‘news’ on Apple’s App Store, where it quickly reached #1. The move could be seen as strategic, given it previously sat at #5 behind Facebook, Instagram, Messenger and WhatsApp. It could also have been a tactical play to put Twitter in front of an audience looking for new ways in which to receive news, as opposed to the other way round. The timing of the move was somewhat suspicious, following the announcement that Q1 user growth had barely increased from the quarter before.

The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism released its Digital News Report a couple of months later. One of the main findings in the report was that half of those surveyed use social media as a news source, with one in 10 describing it as their main source. However, it wasn’t Twitter that came out ahead in this respect but rather Facebook, which was by far the most popular platform for finding, reading, watching and sharing news.

It could be that Twitter was the first to think of making the change, or that it had the motivation it needed to make the switch. While Facebook’s growth continues, it doesn’t need to make use of tactics to attract users. Either way, the decision is certainly not without merit.

For the first time, young people are turning to social media as opposed to television for their news. Half of the report’s global sample said they use their smartphone to read the news while computer use is falling. There are a number of reasons that are likely contributing to this. The lack of paywalls on social media means users are not bounced off sites; although people expressed concerns about algorithms, younger users are far more comfortable with them as they offer personalised recommendations based on prior consumption; and a quarter of internet news users share their news on social media, which discourages cross-channel browsing and draws the discussions, and the news itself, onto social platforms. Social media also means users can pick and choose what they read, and news aggregators (such as Apple News) mean they can create their very own news sites made up of their favourite sources.

The rise of online and social media in news consumption could be attributed to this control that people now have over what they see. The combination of being able to choose who to follow and algorithms that offer up relevant and similar news stories means that people are their own editors. It’s not that they don’t want high-quality journalism or well-regarded publications, but rather that they want to be able to create their own news portal where they can get the exact and specific breadth and depth of information they want.

With the inclusion of algorithms, however, social networks run the risk of creating echo chambers and encouraging re-enforcement of already-held beliefs. In a newspaper, readers are presented with numerous articles by multiple journalists and contributors, including opinion pieces and columns. News aggregators are more similar to this model, but algorithms have a long way to go to offer people a full picture. Possibly the biggest example of this was seen in the US election – the Wall Street Journal’s project ‘Blue Feed, Red Feed’ showed just how markedly Facebook users’ timelines can differ depending on whether they tend to read more liberal or more conservative articles. Although the election is a particularly dramatic example of this, it does highlight the need for more diverse opinions and perspectives.

Algorithms are still fairly new and will continue to be tweaked and updated to give users the best possible experience. One way Facebook could skirt the issue of polarisation would be an ‘opposing viewpoints’ button, which could offer contrasting opinions without any decline in user control. Whether this would be used is another question entirely, but it would at least give people the opportunity to see a more holistic picture of the issue they are reading about.

Ultimately, if people want total control over the news they read – which is a fair assumption to make given the growing popularity of social media over traditional news sources – they will also have to trust themselves to shoulder the burden of impartiality and diversity, which brings us full circle to the way in which news is presented in a newspaper or on television. While young people are moving in their droves towards social media to read the news, it seems that they want the way in which they fundamentally digest news stories to stay the same.

Perhaps Twitter has cottoned onto something: that it’s time to stop denying that social media is just for sharing photos and chatting with friends, but that it’s the new way to consume news. Twitter might be one step ahead of everyone else. Facebook needs to put some thought into how it can best use algorithms as a ‘news’ site, and the publishers themselves need to change how they supply news. If not, they run the risk of being edited post-publication and losing control over their finished product.

Written by Rebecca Ingram, Senior Digital Account Executive (@_beccaingram)

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