The Facebook Inc. logo is displayed for a photograph on an Apple Inc. iPhone in Washington. (Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Facebook’s Biggest Boondoggle Is Hyping Video

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Facebook has been accused of misleading advertisers about the viewership of its video content. The important question isn’t whether the social-media company didn’t tell advertisers as soon as it knew it had inflated the numbers (it says it did) but whether the video-content boom, which the social network has actively fueled since 2014, reflects any consumer demand.

In 2016, the Wall Street Journal reported that for the previous two years, Facebook overestimated the attention videos got on its platform by using a metric that exaggerated the average amount of time users spent looking at a video. The higher number led advertisers to believe that users had a higher engagement with their content than Facebook actually achieved.

A group of small advertisers sued the company. Now, based on internal Facebook documents the plaintiffs obtained during the proceedings, they claim that Facebook knew about the error for a long time before reporting it and that video statistics were overstated by a greater factor than previously reported. But these details only matter to advertisers, who have been trying to force Facebook to allow more external auditing of its metrics.

What matters to the world at large, and to news organizations in particular, is, as Laura Hazard Owen of the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University has pointed out, whether Facebook has used inaccurate metrics to convince the publishing industry to stress video content to the detriment of reading matter.

I’d even argue that, in the grand scheme of things, it’s not important whether or not the data Facebook used to build up the video hype, which caused some news organizations to invest heavily in video production rather than writers and other producers of written content, were faulty. What matters is whether users want all the video that’s being dumped on them today -- or whether media managers should rethink the pivot.

Even as they reported inflated video viewership to advertisers, Facebook executives pushed the idea that video was wildly popular among social media users, to the extent that their entire feeds would eventually consist of little else. Mark Zuckerberg, the company’s founder and chief executive officer, said so in 2014 and again in 2016; at both times the viewership miscalculation was going on. At the same time, other platforms, such as SnapChat and Twitter, were also reporting growing video viewership. That’s only natural because, like Facebook, they were encouraging the posting of that content as a way to sell more expensive ads. So publishers decided to go with the apparent trend, sometimes resulting in layoffs of written-word journalists.

There’s no question that people watch videos, and that the social networks’ push in that direction has mattered. For a 2017 paper, Antonis Kalogeropoulos of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University looked at news video consumption patterns and found some growth between 2014 and 2016.

Facebook’s Biggest Boondoggle Is Hyping Video

But over the same two years, video’s share of internet traffic increased more dramatically than video news consumption in most of these countries -- from 60.3 percent in 2014 to 67.7 in 2016. That means people’s consumption of other types of video -- such as Netflix movies -- grew faster than their consumption of news video. And there's no way to track how much more video was pushed at consumers as the boom began, but never really watched.

“Overall, our study shows that online news video consumption is growing in many countries, but more slowly than some in the industry hoped or predicted,” Kalogeropoulos wrote, pointing out that growing consumption doesn’t have to do with demand alone but also with “the power of social media platforms to push online news video in their algorithms to make them more prominent.”

Taking this a bit further, one might argue that the social networks, and the publishers who came along for the ride, have forced on consumers a type of content they didn’t particularly want or need, at least for news.

Watching video is a less efficient way of getting information than reading: One can typically take in 150 to 160 spoken words a minute, but the average reading speed is about 230 words per minute. Kalogeropoulos fond that in the U.S., U.K., Spain and Germany the tendency to watch news videos was correlated with the use of TV for news, so there’s more demand from people who prefer audiovisual information to text. But younger consumers, for example, have the opposite preference, according to a 2016 Pew Research survey, so, without the social networks’ special effort, the natural trend should be toward more text rather than more video.

Even four years into the social networks’ push into video, a large number of people, especially in the Western world, still don’t watch news video at all: In the U.K., that’s 62 percent of the audience, in Germany 56 percent, in the U.S. 42 percent. According to the 2018 Digital News Report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, “Americans and Europeans would like to see fewer online news videos; Asians tend to want more.”

In Western countries, the preference in news consumption is still for text.

Facebook’s Biggest Boondoggle Is Hyping Video

When it comes to videos, people mostly watch them on social media, where algorithms push this type of content at them, and not on publishers’ own websites, which recently have grown heavy with video. That means the format may be more useful for complying with the social networks’ preferences (which is a legitimate tactic in promoting content) than for delivering content to consumers -- or, to use the old-fashioned but still justified word, readers.

Whether or not the social networks provide accurate data about video viewership, it’s not necessarily a good idea for publishers to put more stock in these data than in consumer surveys. Buying the video hype and writing off writers was hasty at best. Social media companies don’t just follow their users’ preferences: They work to change the world so they can make more money; it’s not necessary for everyone else to cooperate with the effort.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics and business. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.