Turns Out Facebook Isn’t a Good Place for Discovering News After All

Nearly half of U.S. Internet users get news from Facebook, but Twitter is much better at surfacing it.

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Twitter has long been noted as a great source of breaking news. Mainstream outlets like CNN have been mining the service for breaking news. Despite being a source of news for almost 50 percent of Internet users in the U.S., Facebook doesn’t do nearly as well at surfacing news as Twitter. So why the disparity?

According to a Facebook post by Anthony DeRosa, the editor-in-chief of mobile-news app Circa, “Facebook is virtually useless for trying to follow updates on #Ferguson.” Indeed, Twitter has been the place to go for updates. However, with a much larger audience, it’s easy to assume that Facebook would be a destination for breaking news.

The problem with this assumption is that Facebook’s algorithms act like a gatekeeper when it comes to news dissemination. “Photos, links to livestreams, and breaking-news updates (about Ferguson) were rapidly spreading on Twitter on Sunday night, while Facebook users were catching up on the day’s Ice Bucket Challenge videos,” writes Sam Kirkland for Poynter.

It seems Facebook’s algorithms are designed to surface posts that receive interaction, rather than posts that are timely. Pew data indicates that more people get their news from Facebook than Twitter, but Twitter has long been the favored social network for journalists and media professionals. Perhaps the journo community is attracted to Twitter precisely for its ability to break the news.

Kirkland posits that the two networks should become more like each other: Facebook has to be faster and better at surfacing news, and Twitter needs to enable more long-tail content and better discussion. The problem with this idea is that Facebook has tried to get better at doing news in the form of its Paper app, which failed miserably by traditional metrics. According to Comscore data from June, the app only has 119,000 monthly active users, who only browse for 18 seconds a month. This essentially means people download the app, take a look and never use it again.

While Facebook has tried to get better at delivering news to its users — through algorithm tweaks or the release of Paper — its efforts have been in vain. While people like to get their news from Facebook, breaking news happens on Twitter, where the journalists are. Twitter was the best source of information for Ferguson, but the story did show up on Facebook — just much later. It isn’t too far a logical leap to assume that without Twitter, Facebook may never have heard about Ferguson at all.