Americans who receive news primarily through social media are less knowledgeable and less engaged
The way we receive our political news can have a huge impact on how well informed we are and how likely we are to encounter and believe in misinformation.
A report by the Pew Research Center published in July shows that Americans who rely primarily on social media for the news – which describes about 18% of adults in the US – tend to be less about the 2020 elections and less about the coronavirus -Pandemic and less about political knowledge generally know news than people who rely on news websites, cable or network television, radio and print media.
Those who rely on social media are also more likely than other news consumers to be confronted with fabricated news, such as the conspiracy theory that the powerful planned the pandemic and invented the coronavirus in a laboratory and believed falsehoods.
These conclusions come from the center’s American News Pathways project, which has been studying the relationship between Americans’ news habits and their news awareness since last November. Rather than conduct a single survey, the news project takes six deep insights into a pool of nearly 10,000 adults, representing a demographic and geographic cross-section of the nation, who have agreed to be interviewed on a regular basis.
“What the project did is to interweave where people look for their news – what their information and news sources are – and how that relates to their perception and knowledge of certain events,” said Amy Mitchell, director of journalism research for the center . “It answers the question: How does people’s perception of what is happening in the USA – in the world – connect with their sources of information?
“The overarching finding,” she says, “is that US adults who get their political news primarily through social media tend to be less involved with the news. They follow the news less closely and are usually less well informed about a wide range of current events and general US political issues. ”
Over nine months and multiple surveys, the centre’s researchers asked participants 29 different fact-based questions, covering a variety of topics related to the news, from the economy to the impeachment of President Donald Trump and the COVID-19 pandemic. For the 29 questions, the average percentage of correctly answering each question was lower among Americans who rely most on social media for political news than those who rely most on other types of news sources (except for of local television).
The percentage of American adults who use social media for news sometimes or often is now 55%, Mitchell says – compared to the 2016 presidential election when 42% of adults got at least some social media news.
The report also found that only 8% of Americans who prefer social media for news follow this year’s poll closely, compared with four times as many who get news primarily through cable television (37%) or print media (33%). Only adults who rely on local TV stations for their news are comparable to the social media group in their low level of attention to choice.
Almost three-quarters of adults (71%) are on Facebook, and around half (52%) get at least some news from there, Mitchell says. The second most important source is YouTube. Other sources are Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, Snapchat, and WhatsApp.
Overall, social media ranks second among all forms of media as the route to news, the report said. The 18% who primarily get their news this way compares with 25% who rely on news websites such as those run by newspapers, news networks, cable networks, and internet-only providers.
Cable TV and local TV are each the main route for 16% of adults. In second place is network TV with 13%, followed by radio with 8%. The print version of newspapers (as opposed to their websites) has recently reached 3%.
As the use of social media as a news platform increases, the credibility of traditional news sources has eroded, Mitchell says. Research conducted by the center last year showed that trust in the New York Times and the Washington Post, to name just two examples, declined significantly from 2014 to 2019, particularly among Republicans.
And demographic factors play a role in who is looking for news where, the report said.
Almost half of Americans who focus on social media – 48% – are under 30, which makes them Millennials or Gen Z members. They are by far the youngest group.
At the other end of the age spectrum, older Americans are much more likely to turn to print or cable or network television. Of the adults who say print is the most common way to get news, 47% are 65 years or older.
Partly because they are young, people who rely primarily on social media for the news have lower incomes and are less likely to graduate than people in the other groups, with the exception of local television viewers.
“What I notice is that the people who get most of their political news on local television are in many ways similar to those who get their news on social media,” said Eugene Kiely, director of FactCheck.org, a project the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, which oversees the factual accuracy of national politicians and acts as a self-proclaimed “consumer advocate” for voters.
He says he wonders if a lot of the social media users would be sitting on the couch watching local TV news if it wasn’t for Facebook. “There are very interesting parallels,” he says.
Kiely calls it “very worrying” that the growing cohort of social media users is voting for the 3rd presidential race in 2016.
By June, more than a quarter of people who rely on social media the most had heard “a lot” of the false story that COVID-19 was created intentionally or accidentally in a lab, and 8 in 10 had “a little” heard. says the report. Overall, their awareness of this wrong idea was higher than any other group.
A third of those people – 36% – said they believed the virus came from a laboratory, and 27% said they weren’t sure. 35 percent said the virus came about naturally.
Again, the most comparable group for believing the misinformation about the origins of the virus was the group that received the most news from local television. Within this group, 32% said the virus came from a laboratory accidentally or on purpose.
Social media users in particular had also heard more than anyone else of two unproven theories: that vitamin C can protect against the virus, and that the latest 5G cellular technology is somehow linked to the virus.
While Americans who rely on social media as their primary news source were the most likely to hear and believe fake news, they were least likely (with the exception of the local television group) to worry that misinformation could affect the election, with just 37% saying they am very concerned about such a possibility.
Kiely says that while the trend towards social media as a major message channel will accelerate, it is a development that is neither good nor bad in itself. But, he adds, Americans need to learn media literacy better – and schools need to teach.
“People should understand how news works – what legitimate news organizations do about disclosing their funding, financial connections, and employee biographies,” says Kiely. “So much misinformation circulating on social media is not attributed to anyone.”
Tom Infield is a longtime Philadelphia journalist and a regular contributor to Trust.