Facebook already serves as a news source for more than half of all Americans. But some communities solely rely on Facebook and other social media platforms for local information because no nearby news outlet exists.
Local groups dominate the digital landscape, often accumulating thousands of active participants who populate public forums with well-meaning but unvetted information. Even the most astute moderators can’t keep up with the rumor mill.
For example, more than 43,000 Pennsylvania residents turn to “The News Alerts of Beaver County” Facebook Group for breaking news updates. That backfired in late 2019 when inaccurate citizen reporting—via police scanners—mischaracterized a harmless traffic offender as a dangerous, armed fugitive. Just hours earlier the same Facebook Group spread false news about an attempted kidnapping. Needless to say, both the local residents and regional law enforcement were unnecessarily burdened that day.
Social media platforms already frustrate news publishers by aggregating news content while siphoning that audience from the news publisher who did the work to create the content. Now the industry is faced with this new threat that Facebook could replace credible news sources entirely.
Here are three ways this causes irreparable damage to the towns involved.
Consider who’s behind the group: News deserts are more prevalent in small cities and suburbs where traditional sources already shut down. That’s when Facebook Groups, which may or may not have ulterior motives, enter the picture. Every group could potentially be pushing a political agenda unbeknownst to the followers. Without an objective news site to report the facts, there is no way to counter misleading spin.
Gatekeepers control the message: Local leadership use these platforms to bypass news media. Municipalities rely on social media channels to directly reach residents. This workaround lacks accountability necessary to keep local government from operating in the shadows. That is why most community news sites attend every major council and school board meeting.
The administrator of the Facebook group oftentimes has a political or business motive for starting the group and can exercise their authority with impunity, sometimes creating a hostile environment for the truth or for anyone with an opposing viewpoint, as well.
Businesses ultimately lose, too: Residents aren’t the only ones who lose out when Facebook replaces credible news outlets. Business owners who turn to a Facebook group in town as an alternative way to advertise their efforts are actually increasing the speed at which their town becomes a news desert. Should that happen, social media becomes the only way to reach potential clients, subjecting the business to the ever-changing algorithms of Facebook (news publishers know how that turns out) as well as the near-monopolistic power that Facebook has to charge whatever it wants with impunity.
Meanwhile, Facebook only shows a post to a very small percentage of the people who like a page, providing businesses with limited free reach. That is why social media should only be one part of a broader marketing strategy that businesses use to reach potential customers.
Michael Shapiro is founder and CEO of http://TAPinto.net, a network of 80+ franchised online local news sites in New Jersey, New York, Florida and Texas. These sites often represent the only daily news source in their respective communities.