As the Chinese social giant recently boasted over a billion active monthly users worldwide, even the White House is turning to TikTok influencers to deliver news to young audiences. And, given TikTok’s popularity, older social media sites like Facebook and Instagram are making big changes to their algorithms and content to compete. Because more people of all ages are getting news through social media, these shifts could have significant impact on delivery of news and information. However, there are steps media organizations can take to address this impact.
- Focus on quick video clips: In 2020, Facebook added “Reels” to user feeds. Reels are 60 second video clips – the same length as the current TikTok limit on video length.
- Less social, more media: Social media platforms are tweaking their algorithms to de-emphasize social connections, as TikTok has proven the “friends” angle isn’t necessary to engage users. Instagram recently rolled out changes giving less priority to content by users’ friends and family in favor of automatically “recommended” short video reels like those of TikTok.
- Focus on fun: As TikTok’s stated mission is to “inspire creativity and bring joy,” other platforms are shifting to emphasize lighter content.
- De-prioritizing news: News article links constitute only about 4% of what users now see in their Facebook feeds, a spokesperson from Meta told Today, adding: “We have learned from the data that news and links to news content are not the reason the vast majority of people come to Facebook, and as a business we can’t over-invest in areas that don’t align most with user preferences.” Facebook changed the term “News Feed” to “Feed” in February.
Misinformation concerns grow
A related concern is the number of Gen Z adults using TikTok as a search engine. A recent study by Newsguard analyzed 540 TikTok search results on prominent news topics – including school shootings, elections, and vaccines – and found that 19.4% turned up misinformation. The study also found TikTok results to be more polarizing than similar searches on Google. (However, TikTok did detect and remove several false or misleading videos planted by Newsguard as part of the study.) TikTok’s website states its content is vetted by technology, with a “safety team” to evaluate some flagged content.
Social media features problematic for news providers
As entertaining content captures more engagement from users, platforms are incentivized to deprioritize serious news, wrote Navene Elangovan for Today. Her interviews with experts in academia and journalism highlighted social media issues problematic for news providers: emphasis on engagement over content, emotion as a driver of engagement, and the opacity of social media algorithms.
Social media platforms are geared to maximize engagement by having as many users as possible. The goal is to have users spend as much time on the platform as possible, engaging in as many ways as possible. Because strong emotions trigger engagement, social media algorithms reward upsetting content- the opposite of the objectivity valued in traditional news journalism. “Outrage fatigue” can then lead to news avoidance.
Another problem is the opacity of social media algorithms. Changes made to reduce emphasis on quality news should be communicated to audiences. If users are aware of social media platforms downplaying news, they may be more likely to seek reputable news sources elsewhere.
Tips for news providers
Experts interviewed by Elangovan suggested steps newsrooms might take in response to social media TikTokification:
- Separate marketing from journalism so that journalists can focus on content, not views.
- Create incentives for viewers to return daily to news sites to build a habit.
- Diversify channels of news distribution.
- Find ways to draw viewers from “lighter” platforms to more serious content, accepting social media sites as conduits rather than main sources of delivering news.
- Newsrooms may consider setting up their own social media platforms as a means of diversifying how content is communicated.
Will outrage fatigue turn to fluff fatigue?
When Instagram changed its algorithm and content to align more with that of TikTok, a flood of user complaints forced Instagram head Adam Mosseri to defend the decisions at length on Twitter. In the wake of this pushback, Instagram rolled back some of the changes.
When it comes to news content on social media, some experts surmise that outrage fatigue may give way to fluff fatigue. As users are increasingly bombarded with frivolity in their social media feeds, they may turn to more traditional news outlets for deeper and more reliable coverage of major events.