WhatsApp accepted for administration account ‘minus the baneful debates’

The public is increasingly forgoing Facebook as a news source and using WhatsApp to share and discuss stories with friends and family, according to a new report on the state of the media.

“Consumers are being put off by ‘toxic’ debates and unreliable news. They are also finding that alternative networks offer more convenience, greater privacy and less opportunity to be misunderstood. As a result they are moving discussion to messaging apps where they can be sure they are talking to ‘real friends’,” says the report from the University of Oxford’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

Many publishers have noted a growing importance afforded private WhatsApp groups for distributing news and information.

This change raises enormous challenges for news outlets and fact checkers, since the service is encrypted and it is almost impossible to monitor how articles are being shared and correct any spread of misinformation.

It could also prove to be another regulatory headache for Facebook, since Mark Zuckerberg’s company also owns WhatsApp in addition to its flagship social network.

The seventh annual Digital News Report, from the University of Oxford’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, which is based an online YouGov survey of 74,000 people in 37 countries, show substantial changes in the news landscape over the last year. The fallout from the 2016 US presidential election has continued to affect the actions of social media businesses and consumers.

The report found that use of WhatsApp for news has almost tripled since 2014 and overtaken Twitter in importance in many countries, especially among younger users. In some countries, such as Malaysia and Turkey, the encryption makes it a far safer place than Facebook for individuals wanting to discuss political issues without attracting the attention of the authorities.

By comparison, the percentage of people using Facebook to get news has fallen from 42% in 2016 to 36% today. Usage of the social network for other purposes has not fallen substantially, suggesting people are simply seeing the impact of the social network’s recent efforts to reduce the amount of low-quality news on the site in favour of content posted by family and friends.

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, a professor and one of the report’s editors, said the public still tended to blame news publishers rather than social networks for the “long-standing crisis of confidence” in the media industry. “Much of the public does not feel it can trust the news, especially in countries with highly polarised politics and where many media are vulnerable to undue economic or political influence,” he said.

The Reuters Institute research concluded that British media consumption was still dominated by BBC News, although the Guardian website was the second most popular online news website, just ahead of MailOnline.

It also found growing awareness in the UK for niche campaigning left-wing websites supportive of Jeremy Corbyn, such as The Canary, and Another Angry Voice, but warned that changes to Facebook’s algorithm “could see these alternative websites struggle to retain attention”. The social network is known to be refining its algorithm to take greater account of how much users trust various news sites.

There was less positive news for news outlets attempting to make money from internet content. Just 7% of Britons said they had paid for online news in the last year, one of the lowest rankings in the world, compared to 20% of Australians and almost a third of people in Norway.

Most of the respondents to the survey erroneously believed that the majority of online news outlets made money. However, the survey found readers were much more likely to pay for a news subscription or give a donation if they were an informed that an outlet needed the income to cover costs.