How publishers can beat digital disruption terror

The logos of the Telegram, Facebook messenger and the WhatsApp applications are displayed on the screen of an Apple iPhone

The logos of the Telegram, Facebook messenger and the WhatsApp apps. News publishers should move with speed and create story formats and business models that deliver world-class journalism on the platforms. 

Photo credit: Shutterstock

What you need to know:

  • Dark social, also known as dark traffic, is a mysterious social media interaction with content that can’t be traced by third parties or marketers through web analytics,
  • By switching to ‘private mode’, they deny publishers the much-needed data to inform content plans, publishing and marketing decisions.
  • Most publishers ask for names and email addresses as others—amid mounting data privacy concerns—stop at social media addresses.


Debate on the recently released Reuters Digital News Report 2022 has mainly focused on its salient findings— that people are increasingly selectively avoiding the news, even as they trust it much less.

While those are big concerns for an industry struggling to build direct business relationships with consumers following the collapse of the advertising model, there is even a more disturbing reveal: the rising role of dark social media in news consumption, especially in Africa.

Dark social, also known as dark traffic, is a mysterious social media interaction with content that can’t be traced by third parties or marketers through web analytics because such shares do not contain any digital referral information about the source. It involves readers sharing story links, called URLs, in private social media and instant messaging apps.

These are the new fad for privacy-conscious media consumers ready to protect their private data, the new ‘black gold’.

The report says WhatsApp (55 per cent) and Telegram (18) combined are more important for finding, sharing and discussing news than Facebook—a clear social platform—at 59 per cent in Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa. 

Generation Z, the demographic giving news publishers sleepless nights, the average age of a digital news subscriber being 50, is behind these ballooning numbers.

By switching to ‘private mode’, they deny publishers the much-needed data to inform content plans, publishing and marketing decisions.

Data, the lifeblood of the digital economy, is the engine that informs, guides and powers decision-making in the measurable universe of online journalism.

Numbers are the backbone of the content subscription model that many big media houses have been experimenting with following the disruption of the advertising model by Big Tech.

Blocking publishers

Yet the report shows readers are actively blocking publishers’ attempts to know more about them.

Facebook and Twitter, the once-popular platforms for news and information sharing and whose analytics can be easily tracked, have lost their appeal as privacy-mindful masses shift to end-to-end encrypted Telegram and WhatsApp.

And since dark social and email content interactions are recorded as direct traffic to the website, sometimes from an unrecognised device, newsrooms have been attempting to know more about their consumers by asking them to register.

Most publishers ask for names and email addresses as others—amid mounting data privacy concerns—stop at social media addresses.

Their objective is to create digital personas of the readers to serve them better: Deliver more relevant content, at the right time and in the right place (regions and devices).

But many readers are not only unwilling but actively hiding their personal details even with incentives such as free content samples and package trials.

Clear web tools and approaches could help shed light on dark social beyond the motley but nebulous data basket that is “direct traffic”.

A good starting point would be the use of URL shorteners, such as Bit.ly, to track outbound links and sharing widgets that appear around digital content.

Users who share and receive content via these means can subsequently be targeted with relevant messages across the web.

Many tools can also be used to measure dark traffic, including GetSocial, AddThis, ShareThis and Po.st.

But the jackpot, in my view, is publishers finding creative ways to serve audiences in the ‘dark spaces’ they have shifted to.

We should move with speed and create story formats and business models that deliver world-class journalism on TikTok, Instagram, WhatsApp and Telegram. And talking of WhatsApp, it’s what’s up.

Mr Misiko, a 2024 candidate for Executive Master’s in Media Leadership and Innovation at Aga Khan University, Nairobi, is the Nation Africa News Editor. @imisikoh

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