Every day we scroll through Facebook, and every day it shows us bits of news. Sometimes we share an article with friends, sometimes we give a like and very occasionally we’re tempted to read what others share in the comments – which usually sets us off complaining. Who chooses and packages that news for us? A handful of journalists who keep an eye on those same likes, clicks and comments. KU Leuven researchers took a closer look at the role of "social media editors" and how they catapult the news to the top of our timeline.
Journalists have been determining which news we receive for many years. They go through a mass of information with a fine-toothed comb and pick out those topics that they find relevant for their target audience. “We have to,” says journalism professor Michaël Opgenhaffen. "An editorial team receives hundreds of possible news items every day, so a selection process is inevitable.”
That process is called “gatekeeping”. It assumes that the journalist is a kind of guard or doorman who decides what is and what isn’t allowed to get through. In the past, editorial offices had more or less a monopoly on gatekeeping, and journalists were relatively free to decide what they included and what they left out. In addition, there were only a few major players. People bought one or two regular newspapers, depending on their political convictions, with the public broadcaster the only source of televised news in Flanders until 1989. “There was little competition within the media landscape. News media selected messages based on their beliefs or principles and had little or no regard for commercial pressure.”
Social media editors have a separate role within the newsroom. They not only work substantively, but also keep an eye on the numbers and know what ‘sells’.
Clicks and likes
All of this has changed with the disappearance of pillarisation and certainly since the emergence of the internet. Media soon realised that they had to keep up with the spirit of the times, and they also became active online. Nowadays all news media are available in no time with a few clicks of the mouse. “The news environment has become more competitive: no longer do only purely journalistic principles play a role in news selection. You also have to take into account what the public wants, otherwise the competition will lure them away.”
The role of gatekeeping has also changed: in addition to a selection for the paper newspaper or the TV news, the media also selects messages that are only going to be available online. And with the advent of social media, this has been taken a step further. “You can only post a limited number of articles on Facebook every day if you don't want to overwhelm people's timeline. The selection is therefore much more strategic than for the newspaper or the online channels. Media want to reach as many readers as possible with just a few articles. So they continuously check the number of clicks, likes or comments that articles on social media generate. Based on this, they check whether an article is “trending” or not, and they take away those insights for use in the future.”
You can ask questions about this way of working, but no news medium can afford to ignore social media, says Opgenhaffen. Articles are therefore frequently shared on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. The latter platform in particular is important for news dissemination.
“When news outlets post their articles on Facebook themselves, they generate 40 to 60 percent more traffic to their website than when they leave the distribution to the public. Moreover, there are more and more people who get their news exclusively from Facebook. Often this is an organic process – you see a news item appearing in your timeline because a friend liked it or a colleague shared it. It’s important for media to appear in someone's timeline, and thus remain ‘on top of mind’ of the news consumer.”
Human interest, entertainment news or domestic news score on Facebook. Topics such as international politics, or politics in general, don’t do as well.
Journalist vs. marketer
Today’s gatekeeper has an important role on the various platforms: the social media editor. Opgenhaffen and his team took a closer look at this role and investigated how newspapers share their news on Facebook. In an additional study, the researchers interviewed 22 social media editors to determine the profile and behaviour of such an editor.
“You would think that it’s mostly young people or recent graduates, but that’s not the case,” says Opgenhaffen. “In Belgium and the Netherlands, we see a mix between people in their twenties, thirties and forties. Often it only involves a handful of people. At major media such as Het Laatste Nieuws, De Standaard or De Telegraaf, you have ‘dedicated social media editors’ – two to three editors who work full-time on social media messages. With smaller news media, a journalist often does their own social media.”
Social media editors have a separate role within the newsroom, because their function is somewhere between journalism and marketing. They not only work substantively, but also keep an eye on the numbers and know what “sells”. “They also do everything a journalist does, except write the piece themselves,” says Opgenhaffen. “They select the news articles, come up with a triggering Facebook text, or choose a more eye-catching photo themselves. It’s remarkable: almost all call themselves ‘editors’, which means that they see themselves more as a journalist than as a marketer.”
’Social media editors’ respond to emotions. Status updates are usually worded more negatively or positively than the original headline. You never go viral with ‘neutral news’.
Social media editors, even more than regular journalists, take into account what hits with the public when selecting news items. And on a medium like Facebook, that’s mainly news that encourages engagement. “So much depends on the profile of your medium – what scores with readers of De Tijd doesn’t necessarily work with readers of Het Nieuwsblad, and vice versa – but you notice that items that directly affect people are more easily shared and liked and therefore end up higher on the timeline.”
“It often concerns human interest, entertainment news or domestic news. Think of news about the remake of your favourite movie, a funny story about ‘the man in the street’, or a message about a coming heat wave . Conversely, it turns out that subjects such as international politics, or politics in general, do not do well. We’re less likely to like or forward a video of a speech by Biden to our friends than an article with tips on how to de-ice your car in freezing weather.”
Facebook's algorithm also plays a role in news selection that shouldn’t be underestimated. Social media editors closely monitor which messages the algorithm picks out, and how that changes over time. “Facebook prefers ‘meaningful interactions’ – posts that elicit responses, or where people tag each other in the comments. Those messages end up in your timeline faster, which creates a self-reinforcing effect: the more people respond, the more other people will see it, which generates new responses ... ”
You shouldn’t please the algorithm too much. If Facebook notices that the media are aligning their messages too much with the algorithm, and the quality of our timeline is deteriorating, they adjust accordingly.
Neutral or viral?
Editors therefore try to provoke as many responses as possible, in order to ‘please’ the algorithm. By making their top line text a bit smoother, for example, or by adding emojis. “They respond to emotions,” says Opgenhaffen. “One of our studies shows that status updates are often remarkably more negative or positive than the original headline. There are reasons for this: you never go viral with ‘neutral news’ (laughs).”
Editors sometimes go a long way to check what works best on Facebook. For example, by using “A/B Testing”, in which they make two posts about the same article. “Half of the audience will see post A for 15 minutes and the other half post B. The post that provoked the most ‘engagement’ will be the final one.”
Although social media editors use handy tricks and tools to entice the reader, Opgenhaffen emphasises that we shouldn’t see them as slaves to the algorithm or easy successes. They self-regulate their work and also share news that might less successful on social media but is still socially relevant or important to the reader. And they know that flirting with the algorithm isn't always a good idea, even if only because there’s a chance that could lead to a reprimand.
“If Facebook notices that media align their posts too much with the algorithm, and the quality of our timeline deteriorates, they’ll adjust their algorithm again,” says Opgenhaffen. “You saw that a few years ago, for example, with the abundance of clickbait. The media realised that something like this worked to score clicks, but it mainly elicited irritation and angry reactions in the audience. Facebook doesn't want that, of course, so clickbait was punished.”
Do editors also base substantive decisions on the basis of what scores on social media? “Absolutely. Regardless of the number of likes, shares or clicks, you can see how long people linger on a long article, whether or not they drop out or click through to other articles, etc. All this plays a role in the choices that editors make concerning articles. In addition, what happens on social media often makes the news. An article about a twitter feud, or a piece about an influencer’s favourite corona holiday destinations, based on their instagram photos … there’s a very clear interplay between traditional media and social media.”
According to Opgenhaffen, this interaction continues to provide a bevy of material for further research. “I think it would be interesting to research news on other social media such as Instagram or Twitter. Or to look at the impact of social media news. As mentioned, many people get their news from Facebook and first see the spectacular top line and the headline; the more nuanced article is itself often behind a paywall. Those who don’t have an online newspaper subscription can’t read any further and therefore don’t get that nuance. What consequences does that have for the perception of the news? We’re going to do something similar for corona coverage. What’s the impact of Facebook status updates involving COVID coverage on the way the public processes that news? So there’s still more to come in the coming years (laughs).”