You've Got a Friend in News

The Internet has facilitated engagement. This goes beyond commenting on articles to actively sharing information with ones own networks to being a part of the news by having social media content featured in stories. One way or another, we are integrating ourselves into media and its messaging.

With the loss of monopoly on distribution channels and vicious competition for decreasing advertising budgets, traditional media outlets are adapting to the online environment. In the competition to attract eyeballs to websites, social networks are seen as a potential driver of site traffic to otherwise disconnected audiences.

According to PewResearch, 64% of U.S. adults use Facebook, “and half of those users get news there — amounting to 30% of the general population.”

The need to reach audiences, and engage them with content that resonates to the target’s tastes, is leading to some interesting developments in online media networks.

Using Netvizz, “a tool that extracts data from different sections of the Facebook platform”, we exported Page Like Network data for five media outlets: BBC, Buzzfeed, AJ+, RT and Fox News.

Beginning with a media outlet’s Facebook Page (otherwise known as the “seed”), Netvizz retrieves all the pages that the seed Page Likes, crawling to a maximum depth of 2 Page degrees out from the original. This creates a network of Facebook Pages (Nodes) connected through Likes (Edges) between the Pages.

We then used Gephi, an open-source visualization and exploration platform to analyse the networks. Each of the five media outlet’s Facebook Like networks were then visualised using the ForcedAtlas2 graph layout algorithm, after filters were first applied for Modularity (which measures how the network breaks down into communities and is represented here by colours) and Average Degree (measuring the level of interconnectivity, denoted here in size and connecting lines).

The BBC News Facebook Like network is predominately a collection of other BBC holdings (an ego network), and links only externally with established competitors, such as the New York Times. This makes sense if you follow the premise that journalism should not be the news, but report on it. The BBC Facebook Like network is much more a traditional broadcast model of the media outlet pushing news out, rather than engaging with it or the audience.

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Buzzfeed, the digital media powerhouse, had a very different network. An ego network exists – consisting of the outlet’s own holdings as well as its sister company The Huffington Post – but the vast majority of the nodes and communities are centred on entertainment channels and media competitors – essentially, what Buzzfeed’s audience watches and likes.

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The AJ+ network, while considerably smaller than Buzzfeed’s, also moves beyond the BBC ego network model, into the news that it covers most, including strong connections with Human Rights Watch and the RYOT, a non-profit organisation that aims to pair news coverage with actionable causes.

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The main RT Facebook Page network continues this model, albeit with a slightly different outcome. RT has been plugging into the Occupy movement, so much so that this community dwarfs the RT ego network shown here. Should RT manage to engage such a movement in a meaningful and active way – beyond simply covering it – this could have serious implications for social stability in countries where Occupy is active.

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And finally the Fox News network features more of its news personalities, rather than programming – but starts to connect out into key U.S. political communities, engaging numerous congressmen and senators. This is yet another form of connectivity and influence that should be considered alarming, again, if you follow the premise that news should be impartial.

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With such insidious networks, engaging with the people and organisations these media outlets cover, one might question notions of objectivity. In this Age of (Dis)information, it is but another example of how lines are blurring between the news makers and the news followers.

Yet, there seems to be something to it.

Buzzfeed’s revenue tripled from 2012 to 2013, and reached $46 million in the first half of 2014. And in July of this year NBCUniversal was preparing to invest another $250 million into the media organization. It might seem paltry compared to the mega-media holdings of CNN or FOX, but Buzzfeed’s growth is impressive for an online outlet that opened in 2006 in an era when traditional media print circulation rates are plummeting.

This network model appears to be paying off in terms of Page likes and engagement levels too. Fox and Buzzfeed are certainly outperforming BBC, at least on Facebook. In a Digital Age, media organisations are still seeking the online equivalent of circulation figures, which are used to position the value of advertising space. Engagement is one measurement used to convince advertisers to part with marketing dollars – after all, a Like, comment or share requires active effort, and surely participation is more valuable than passive viewing.

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This article is part of The Age of (Dis)information series: AgeDis

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About Author

Alicia Wanless

La Generalista is the online identity of Alicia Wanless – a researcher and practitioner of strategic communications for social change in a Digital Age. Alicia researches how we shape — and are shaped — by a changing information space. As the Director of Strategic Communications at The SecDev Foundation, Alicia develops campaigns and strategies for engaging beneficiaries in outreach and behavioural change. Her work includes developing a training program that deals with verifying information and the spread of content online, and has supported projects in the Middle East, Vietnam and the post-Soviet space.

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