The Big Read: TikTok, TikTok… is time running out for informed societies as social media platforms shun hard news?

The concept of social media — where people connect with others by “adding” them as a friend — arguably dates back to the era of Friendster and MySpace, both precursors of Facebook.

Friendster, which allowed users to build a profile, and to connect with friends, amassed three million users within a few months of its debut in 2002.  

A year later came MySpace, which allowed users to customise their publicly visible profile pages. By 2005, it had 25 million users and was sold to Rupert Murdoch’s media company News Corp.

However, both MySpace and Friendster were bogged down by technical difficulties and an inability to keep up with user preferences. 

While Friendster was eventually shut down in 2015, MySpace has rebranded itself as a social networking site for users to discover and share music. It is now jointly owned by American media companies TI Gotham and Time.

Meanwhile in 2004, second-year Harvard University student Mark Zuckerberg was developing a site called “FaceMash”, which was designed to rate the attractiveness of women on campus.

But the “prank website”, as described by Mr Zuckerberg during a hearing by the United States Congress in 2018, quickly gave way to “The Facebook”.

The platform allowed Harvard students, and later anyone with a verified email address, to build up their personal profiles, update their relationship status and “add” each other as friends.

Within four years, it had become the go-to site for “social interaction” in cyberspace — amassing 100 million users, and then expanded to one billion in the next four.  

Currently, Facebook, as it is now known, has close to three billion active users every month.

Apart from remaking the way people communicate and connect, Facebook has also changed the way news is produced, disseminated and consumed.  

“Facebook’s role has evolved from a network for friends to share personal information to a way for people to share, recommend and link together all kinds of information, including news,” said the authors of a 2011 report by the Washington DC-based Pew Research Centre on the importance of Facebook.  

“If searching for news was the most important development of the last decade, sharing news may be among the most important of the next,” they added.

Since then, other social media platforms have served as outlets for news as well, including YouTube, Instagram (which has been acquired by Facebook’s parent company Meta) and Twitter.

All the major platforms have tweaked their algorithms and functions over the years, driving media companies to change their products to bring more traffic to their own media sites. 

In the case of Facebook, one of its earliest changes was in 2009, when it stopped showing users posts in chronological order to bump up posts with more likes and comments.

The move drove users, including publishers and media companies, to design “clickbait” posts with catchy headlines to boost interaction.

Around 2015, Facebook made videos a priority in its algorithm to encourage people to spend more time on its platform. That year, Facebook overtook Google as the top driver of traffic to news sites. 

But the platform became a hotbed of misinformation in the heat of the 2016 United States’ presidential election campaign between Mr Donald Trump and Mrs Hillary Clinton.

The situation worsened after another tweak to its algorithm in 2018, which showed users more posts from friends and families over those from big publishers; inevitably sending divisive posts on the bitter contest to the top of people’s feeds.

Since then, Facebook has been de-emphasising news content on its feed. 

In late July this year, Facebook tweaked its algorithm so that people scrolling through its home page can discover content that is “uniquely personalised to them” instead of emphasising content from friends and family, said Meta, its parent company, in a blog post. 

Similar changes have also been made to Instagram.

Facebook has indicated that hard news will continue to be less of a priority on its feed, with its algorithm refocused to distribute entertainment, lifestyle and sports content, as well as viral stories. It will stop feeding news and political stories to users’ feeds. Neither will it boost videos that are produced on its rival TikTok’s platform.

Meanwhile, TikTok, which is rapidly gaining dominance in the social media scene, has signalled that news content will not be a priority on its platform.

Known for short-form videos, TikTok has billed itself as a platform to “inspire creativity and bring joy“. 

It has also imposed strict guidelines for news content, such as including trigger warnings for “sensitive content” and requiring newsrooms to condemn illegal behaviour in posts depicting criminal activity in a bid to keep viewers safe from risky content.