Check out the Facebook share counts on these Onion articles. Data courtesy of the wonderful Buzzsumo
The Onion, America’s finest news source, has had it’s fair share of ups and downs. After announcing that they would cancel their printing operations in 2013, they shifted their focus to video and online content. A natural part of that online component is using Facebook to share content. And Facebook certainly makes up the lion’s share of their shares.
Getting large share volumes on Facebook requires advertising
If you’ve managed a Facebook page over the last few years, you’re well aware that Facebook took an aggressive and controversial stance on page impression volume. They basically hacked the number of impressions you can get through natural, organic shares. Most pages saw their view rates drop down to about 6.5% even as low as 2% of their total audience. There’s an excellent article discussing this in more detail here. This change was ushered in under the guise of “reducing clutter in the news feed” but happened at the same time Facebook launched their IPO and needed to show their profitability. Most businesses saw this move as forcing them to advertise in order to get the views they used to get. This makes advertising on Facebook a mandatory part of any social media content marketing plan.
How the 2016 Presidential election put the squeeze on Zuckerberg.
Donald Trump’s surprise victory in the 2016 election was nothing short of shocking. The media and polls all showed Hillary Clinton as the favored candidate. Even Trump’s own supporters weren’t expecting this. With any surprising event comes stages of grief and analysis. “How did this happen?” “Who do we blame?” The general consensus among liberals and those who didn’t expect a Trump victory was that Donald Trump is a serial liar, fraud and potential criminal who is unfit to serve as President. If half the country (although technically a quarter because half the country didn’t vote) thinks that Trump has redeeming values, it must be due to misinformation. And when you’re talking about how people get their information, everyone naturally turned towards the biggest “we’re not a publisher but we publish news” platform out there, Facebook.
Facebook’s spammy news problem
The Guardian published an in depth article covering how these fake news sites manipulate the election news to generate income from banner ad impressions. All they need is to get traffic to their sites, which trigger their ads. That’s it. It doesn’t matter if people return to the site, or if people find the article useful or anything. It is purely based on one-visit impressions generating their income. And there is definitely income to be had. Some of these fake news sites generate up to $40,000 a month from these ads.
Since Facebook is the largest social platform, and especially since it is quickly becoming the main source for most people’s news, it is only natural that the fake news sites make use of Facebook’s advertising platform to spread their phony stories. They can work out a simple marketing budget and generate good revenue off fake news advertising through the platform.
Fake news vs. Satire
Facebook has tried to combat fake news in the past. They briefly labeled comedic news as “satirical” so readers knew to take the articles lightly. But we’re venturing into a different realm of fake news. We’re talking about manipulative, sensational news that has one goal: get a click. There are some quality journalism organizations out there that are guilty of this same thing. So it is going to be interesting how Facebook will affect the visits and share counts of all news organizations.
So what might happen?
I believe a handful of things may occur.
Facebook intelligently identifies news as satire vs. fake
Best case scenario, Facebook uses a smart enough algorithm that identifies qualified “satirical” news sources such as The Onion. This would likely not pull off of the title, but would take into account a variety of things such as the website WHOIS record information, server IP and other domain stats to verify quality. Or really, borrow from people who have rated quality websites before like Moz and Majestic SEO.
Facebook bans all “spammy sounding” posts from advertising
This would likely catch quality satirical sites in a wide net that cracks down on clickbait sounding posts. Mailchimp and other email marketing software providers out there have used a similar filter to identify spammy email subject lines. It’s not unlikely that Facebook goes this route in the short term.
Sites will have to invest in other marketing platforms
The Onion may have to take their video advertising to YouTube and focus on monetizing their YouTube channel, though this is hardly ideal. Unfortunately a lot of people consume their news on Facebook. In the event that The Onion and other sites get banned from advertising on Facebook, I’d say they may need to re-think their actual content.
What about the little guys?
The Onion is large enough that I could see them working something out with Facebook to let them continue advertising on the platform. But there are a lot of little satire sites out there. These sites can be important starting grounds for comedians and other writers. It’s sad to think they could be penalized for the acts of greedy spammers.