COVID-19 Takes Americans Back to Facebook for News

With a pandemic raging outside their doors and shelter-in-place orders in place across the country, Americans are turning to Facebook to stay connected with each other and keep up on the latest news about the novel coronavirus. 

This marks a stark turn for Facebook as a platform for obtaining news and information, something the company moved away from after accusations of promoting misinformation during the 2016 U.S. election. Instead of showing users news content in their feeds, the company pivoted to displaying more content from friends, family, and Facebook groups.

Like so many things in life these days, COVID-19 changed all of that in an instant. 

According to the New York Times, more than half the articles being consumed on Facebook in the United States during the month of March were related to the coronavirus. In addition, traffic from Facebook to other websites increased by more than 50 percent because of strong interest in virus-related news. 

As users flock to Facebook for news, the company seems to be applying lessons learned during the 2016 election and directing them to articles published by mainstream outlets like The Washington Post, NBC, and The Atlantic. The New York Times reported that its own referral traffic from Facebook increased 160 percent.

“We are working overtime to help people find and share credible information right now which includes important news from local and national publishers, and expert health organizations. We’re actively testing ways to ensure people see more timely and explanatory COVID-19- related news and information, while out-of-date news gets demoted,” Campbell Brown, Facebook’s vice president for global news partnerships, told the New York Times.

Facebook is also trying to direct users to trustworthy content from public health sources like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO). According to CNET, Facebook and Instagram had together directed more than one billion to resources from organizations like the CDC and WHO by late March. 

The company is also working hard to combat misinformation about the virus such as conspiracy theories that it originated in a Chinese laboratory and that it can be cured by drinking bleach, CNET reported. This includes reducing distribution of false content once it’s been fact checked, or removing it entirely if it could cause immediate physical harm to people reading it.

Facebook has also seen an increase in usage of its messaging services, Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp. The spike came as Facebook, like many companies, transitioned to remote work, which impacted staffing levels and response times to outages or performance issues.

“The usage growth from COVID-19 is unprecedented across the industry, and we are experiencing new records in usage almost every day,” Facebook’s Alex Schultz and Jay Parikh wrote in a blog post. “Maintaining stability throughout these spikes in usage is more challenging than usual now that most of our employees are working from home.”

With stay-at-home orders in place through at least the end of April, news consumption on Facebook is not likely to decrease anytime soon. The company continues to be proactive about combating misinformation and supporting news organizations reporting on the virus.
In a March 30 blog post, the company announced a $100 million investment to support the work of news organizations through the Facebook Journalism Project and $75 million in marketing to move money to news organizations through the platform.

Grassroots Pulse covers public policy and political issues aimed at engaging highly-active policy makers, donors, and grassroots leaders at the forefront of the political process in America today.

Image Credit: Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash

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