Publishers Continue to See Less User Engagement With News Links on Facebook

If the Online News Act was repealed, would all publisher engagement problems go away? Maybe not if an Australian study is anything to go by.

It’s no secret that the Online News Act has resulted in disaster for publishers. After Meta rolled out news link blocking in Canada, engagement on publishers pages collapsed. Large publishers saw declines in traffic while smaller outlets are in full blown panic mode, begging the government to reverse course. Those calls ultimately went unanswered as those outlets announced slowdowns, and multiple newspapers gradually shut down as they couldn’t withstand the damaging impacts of the Online News Act.

Facebook and Instagram were both key platforms for publishers of all sizes to grow their traffic. Supporters of the legislation that the opposite is true where Meta would be the ones that would get hurt from the lack of news content. Research, however, begged to differ as traffic remained unchanged and the companies stock value soared. The simple truth in all of this is that publishers need platforms far more than platforms need publisher. More recent research confirmed all of the above again.

So, what’s the solution in all of this? The first step is actually a simple one: rescind the Online News Act. It was a catastrophic failure and repealing the legislation would be a huge step in the right direction in getting Meta on board with the idea of allowing news links on their platform again. Having a presence again would easily be better than a total lack of one. The thing is, even if the government finally comes to their senses and pulls the plug on that law, it doesn’t mean that all of the media’s problems magically go away. Even if publishers suddenly reappear on the platform overnight, it doesn’t mean that all of those users would suddenly return to their news sites.

Some might look at those comments and say that this would have to do with returning to the platform after a long absence. People will have to gradually return and get used to the publishers content being present on the platform. That may play a role there, but it isn’t the only one.

Research we recently stumbled across earlier this month suggests that Meta is continuing to push news content less and less onto users. It has led some to say that news on Meta is dead. Here’s the Guardian:

An analysis by Guardian Australia has determined that this appears to be by design, with Meta turning off the tap for news in the past few years.

A study carried out in 2021 by researchers from the University of Technology Sydney and RMIT looked at the amount of engagement with Facebook posts by Australian news organisations over time.

It showed a decline in engagement between 2015 and November 2020, as well as a decline in traffic from Facebook to news websites.

Guardian Australia has updated this analysis, which shows that engagement with posts from Australian media is now at an all-time low, with the exception of the brief period in February 2021 when Facebook blocked news posts in Australia.

This drop in engagement and traffic was due at least in part to changes Meta made to its algorithms, which resulted in less news being shown in the home feed of Facebook users. But the UTS and RMIT analysis also shows some publishers changed their approaches to social media in response, focusing on different sources of traffic, such as Google search.

James Meese, one of the RMIT researchers in the 2021 study, says the updated research shows that news on Facebook has continued to underperform on the platform since 2017.

“Another way to say underperformance is just to say that news on Facebook is dead,” he says.

The findings aren’t exactly surprising. A study in 2022 concluded that 4 in every 1,000 posts on Facebook’s main news feed points to a news link. In early 2023, another study confirmed that news links are continuing to get prioritized less and less. Findings later on last year confirmed the findings of the previous two studies. Now, we have this additional study making identical findings.

So, what does this mean? Even if Canadian publishers’ news links were restored on Meta after rescinding the Online News Act, they’ll probably find that the reception is going to be quite cold as fewer people than expected would likely be clicking on their news links. This isn’t even getting into the threat seemingly posed by Google’s Overview AI which pushes results down in favour of AI driven answer giving.

While publishers, a number of whom got themselves kicked off of Meta thanks to their push for the Online News Act, saw their traffic tank due to a general lack of presence on Meta, others unaffected by such a block are also seeing their traffic erode over the years as audiences generally move away from news altogether – and the algorithms are following with those audience choices.

Drew Wilson on Mastodon, Twitter and Facebook.

2 thoughts on “Publishers Continue to See Less User Engagement With News Links on Facebook”

  1. What the Facebook ban on news has shown is that Facebook users engagement with news was very weak. Essentially “out of sight out of mind”. I believe the reason for this is something news organizations are loath to admit, that 90% of news content is fluff and easily replaceable. In addition, newspapers have been replaced as time fillers by cellphones and the internet. It used to be you’d read the paper on the bus, at lunch, and in the bathroom. Now you surf the web on your phone.

    The information eco-system has changed and too many news organizations don’t want to accept they are no longer the gatekeepers of information. Those that don’t accept this are doomed to fail.

    1. Absolutely. In fact, when Meta was brought before the Canadian senate over then called Bill C-18, Meta straight up told the senators that news content is highly replaceable. A sufficient number of senators, however, believed it was all a silly ploy, believing their lobbyist pals that news content is either the only reason or the overwhelming biggest reason people go to Facebook in the first place and chose to ignore those warnings. I even believe some of them concluded that those were just talking points that the platforms wanted them to believe rather than what was really going on: the platforms giving the straight goods on the situation and letting senators do what they will because the outcome meant little to Meta.

      The decrease in journalism quality by larger players really didn’t help the publishers cause in any of this. Had their content continued to be of highest quality, I would venture to guess the nature of the debate would’ve been different even if the outcome would’ve likely been the same.

      I also completely agree that news organizations don’t want to accept that they are no longer the gatekeepers of all knowledge. I think a lot of that has to do with pure ego more than anything else. Specifically, “I am one of the best writers working for [insert news organization name here]. We’ll always be around and we’ll always be the best out there and no one can stop [news organization] from continuing on with our work.”

      I think part of that has to do with the feeling of invulnerability of being in such a position for so long. For them, the dropping of news links represents nothing but a mere speed bump more than anything else. Google moving forward with Overview AI? Pah, they can weather that. Deprioritization of news content on Meta in general? Well, they’ll think of something. It’s been my personal experience at working with a newspaper for a couple of months that for those driven by ego, they don’t realize just how much trouble they are in until it is far too late to save the company (if they realize it at all). At that point, there’s no time or breathing space to conjure up and execute a “plan B”. They’ve been speeding towards a brick wall and the only thing they can do is mutter, “uh oh” just before impact.

      I’m glad that I spent years adding on review sections to the site and moving forward with two YouTube channels (even if one of them is dormant for the time being). If things hit the fan for this site, I at least have an off ramp to continue with operations even if it doesn’t look anything like what is shown today. It leaves the door open for expansion on other platforms and as well.

      Things are ugly for media companies and it won’t get any prettier moving forward.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to Top