U.S. adults who rely primarily on social media are less informed and more exposed to conspiracies – TechCrunch
A new report from Pew Research attempts to better understand U.S. adults who get their news primarily from social media platforms and compare their understanding of current events and political knowledge to that of other sources such as television, radio and use news publications. The most important finding, Pew says, is that consumers of social media messages tend to be less closely following the news and end up being less informed about several key topics.
That seems to reinforce the belief that many people already have – that people who get their messages mainly from Facebook, for example, are not as informed.
However, it is important to understand how Pew Research came to this conclusion and to discuss the extent to which the platforms are at fault, which is unclear from this data.
The company first asked people how they most often get their messages.
Roughly one in five (18%) said they mainly use social media to keep up to date. That’s roughly the percentage of those who say they watch news on local TV (16%) or cable TV (16%), but less than those who say they go straight to a news website or app (25%) ). Another 13% said they watched network TV and only 3% said they read a newspaper.
To be clear, any study that asks users to self-report how they do something isn’t going to be as useful as one that collects hard data on what consumers actually do. In other words, people who think they get most of their news from TV may in fact underestimate the time they spent on social media – or vice versa.
However, in this group of “mostly” social media news consumers, only 8% said they followed key news about the 2020 US election “very closely” compared to 37% of cable viewers who said the same thing, or 33% the print users who said so too. The social media group was closer to the local TV group (11%) on this issue.
On the subject of the coronavirus outbreak, only about a quarter (23%) of mainly social media news consumers said they followed the news about COVID-19 “very closely”. All other groups again reported a higher percentage, including those who mainly watched cable TV (50%), national TV (50%), news websites and apps (44%) and local TV (32%) for news.
In connection with this finding, respondents were also asked 29 different fact-based questions about news topics over the past few days, including Trump’s impeachment, the COVID-19 outbreak, and others. The worst performers on these topics were consumers who said they primarily use social media to get their messages.
For nine questions about basic political knowledge, only 17% of primarily social media news consumers rated “high political knowledge,” meaning they got eight to nine of the questions correctly; 27% received “medium political knowledge” (six-seven on the right) and 57% received “low political knowledge” (five or less on the right). The only group that did worse were those who mostly relied on local television.
45% of those who received their news mainly via websites and apps now also had “high political knowledge”, compared with 42% for radio, 41% for print, 35% for cable TV and 29% for network TV.
The news consumer social media group has also been more exposed to fringe conspiracies, such as the idea that the pandemic was deliberately planned. Nearly a quarter (26%) of those who received their messages primarily through social media said they heard “a lot” about the conspiracy, and a whopping 81% said they heard at least “a little”. This was significantly higher than any other news platform and an indication of how much conspiracies can spread on social media.
Yet the same social media group reported that they were less concerned about the effects of fabricated news. Only about four in ten (37%) said they were “very concerned” about the impact of fabricated news on the 2020 election, which was lower than any other group except local TV viewers (35%). Cable TV viewers were most concerned at 58%.
Perhaps more worrying is the power these conspiracies have to sway people. Among social media message consumers who were aware of the COVID-19 conspiracy, 44% who used social media to frequently receive COVID-19 messages said the theory was at least “likely to be true”. Only 33% of those who have relied less on social media for COVID-19 news said the same thing.
The study compared consumer knowledge of social media messages about other topics, such as the impact of COVID-19 and related health news, with those who obtained their messages from other sources using similar methods. Here, too, the social media group was the least informed.
Pew’s conclusion from his research is that social media users are less informed, which seems pretty accurate about these specific topics. But the implication – or at least what some people might take away from this report – is that they are less informed because they rely on social media as their primary news source. Given these data, that is not necessarily true.
One problem with this conclusion has to do with social media demographics. The company’s research also found that consumers of social media messages were skewed young – for example, 48% of those who used social media primarily for news were between 18 and 29 years old. They also tended to have lower formal levels of education, with only 26% having a college degree, versus 47% of those who read news websites or 49% who turn to print. (Of course, this lack of higher education is partly related to the fact that social media users are younger.)
Historically, we know that young people do not engage in politics at the same level as older adults. There are fewer votes in elections. They are less able to get involved in their local politics because they are relocating to study or because they have not made the choice a habit and often miss registration deadlines. Perhaps they had poor civic education initially and have not yet filled in the gaps like older adults did. Many also feel alienated from politics. And so forth.
When it comes to other issues, too, young people can feel similarly distant and disinterested. For example, many young adults were unconcerned about the coronavirus outbreak because they thought it would only affect the elderly and carried on as usual.
So their lack of knowledge of the news may not be due to the platform they are being consumed on, but to their interest and preoccupation with the subjects in general.