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How and why do consumers access news on social media?

How and why do consumers access news on social media?

Social media have played an important role in how many people access the news over the past decade. The networks people use and the way in which social networks showcase news have, however, changed considerably during that time, as existing platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube evolved both in terms of how they work and who uses them, and newer networks such as Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok have grown in importance.

In this chapter, we aim to cast light on the ever-changing news environment on social media by setting out the differences between networks and what social media news users say their motivation is for accessing news on these platforms, and who they say they pay the most attention to. Our analysis relies on both our survey and data from our focus groups, and concentrates on the six largest open social networks measured in terms of weekly use across all 46 markets: Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok. Of these, we pay particular attention to newer platforms with a younger user base – Instagram, TikTok, and Snapchat – as much less is known about news usage on these networks.

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As is clear from the next table, while well over half of Facebook and Twitter users say they have come across news on these platforms in the past week, for other social media, less than half of users say they have come across news on the platform (and much of this is incidental, the result of seeing news while on a platform for other purposes). In the rest of this chapter, we focus on social media news users specifically, but it is important to keep in mind that this is a subset of all users, and on four of the six platforms we focus on, a minority of regular users.

Motivations for news usage on social networks

In previous reports, we have shown how social networks operate in different ways and address diverse audiences. This year, we also asked social media news users why they use these networks for news. Those who say they not only use a particular platform, but also have used it in the last week to find, read, watch, share, or discuss news, were presented with six options and could pick one that represented their main motivation.1 These options can by no means capture every choice available on social networks, but reflect some of the most common motivations.

As we wrote in the Executive Summary and see in previous research, while Facebook is far more widely named as a network where people come across news, our data show it is typically not a platform where news consumers intentionally go to access the news (as others have found too, e.g. Boczkowski et al. 2018). Across countries, many of those who use the platform for news say they pick up information incidentally. Twitter, in contrast, is often seen much more as a primary destination for news, while YouTube and other networks such as Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok are valued more for entertainment and fun – as well as for some news.

The UK is a good example of how these factors play out across the three largest networks. It is important to keep in mind that the figures in the next chart describe the percentage of news users on that network that say each is their main motivation for using it for news.

Although 21% of people who use Twitter for news say they do so because it’s ‘a good place to access the latest news’, the fact that only a small minority actually use Twitter for news in the first place means this equates to just 3% of the UK population. In contrast to Twitter, where news looms large among many users, YouTube is a platform where some find alternative perspectives (26% of YouTube news users), while others use it as a fun and entertaining place (15%). Social media news users on Facebook in the UK mostly see news while on the platform for other reasons (56%), though debating and commenting is often part of the news experience.

These patterns are typical of many other Western countries, including the United States. Though less popular than Facebook overall, Twitter is widely used by journalists and politicians and is where the news gets broken first – attracting others with a strong interest in the news, as is clear from our focus groups:

When I’m wondering what is going on in the world … Twitter [is] definitely like the first place I go to and usually there’s like a news story that’s breaking and I can read the news and read people’s opinions.
F, 21, US focus group

But we see slightly different patterns elsewhere. In much of Latin America and Asia, many more Facebook users say they get news while on the platform, even though much usage remains incidental:

Nowadays where I see news most is on Facebook, because that's when you are … already seeing photos, things you like.
F, 28, Brazil focus group

In Malaysia, our data show Facebook is more of a news destination (22% of those who use Facebook for news say they get the latest news) and has a smaller proportion of news users who say they mainly see news incidentally than in the UK. Twitter, while being used by a smaller proportion of people overall, is valued most for the latest news and especially for debate.

What sources of news do people pay attention to on social media?

Social media feeds are full of information and opinions shared by ordinary people, advertisers, as well as posts from activist groups, politicians, and news media that a user follows (or the platform recommends). But who do different audience groups pay attention to across networks? Once again, we presented respondents with a range of options and asked them to say where they placed most attention when it came to news.

Taking the United States as an example, we find that, on both Facebook and Twitter, the largest proportion of social media news users say they are most likely to pay attention to mainstream media and journalists. However, many users also appreciate the alternative perspectives that they find there:

I pay attention to articles from sources I trust – NY Times, Washington Post, MSNBC, and my local newspaper. Sometimes I read articles from lesser-known sources because they often go deeper … or present a different slant on the subject.
F, 73, US, Facebook user

Among social media news users, attention on YouTube tends to be evenly split between a range of sources of news and entertainment, including celebrities, politicians, and ordinary people.

We see these patterns on news sources across most markets, with many social media news users saying they pay the most attention to mainstream media on both Facebook and Twitter. But even here, news brands and journalists have to compete with a range of voices that can often be more engaging and strident.

For instance, politicians and political activists, who often use social media to bypass mainstream media, receive a significant share of news attention on social networks like Twitter. A quarter (26%) of those who use Twitter for news in the US – where the suspension of former president Donald Trump has initiated a debate about private companies’ content moderation practices – say they pay most attention to politicians when looking at news on the network.

Elsewhere, alternative voices play an even bigger role. In India, for example, personalities (such as celebrities and influencers) attract most attention amongst social media news users across all four big networks. Facebook users say they pay as much attention to ordinary people as they do to journalists or news organisations when accessing news. And those using Twitter say they pay almost as much attention to politicians as they do journalists or news organisations.

Finally, we find that, in general, those who trust the news less are more likely to seek out alternative sources and less likely to say they pay attention to mainstream news outlets. This is particularly the case on YouTube in the United States where many partisan and alternative views have found a home. Those with lower trust are five times more likely to say they pay attention to alternative sources:

I usually see news from Newsmax or OAN [One America Network], I feel like they post information that the mainstream media won't touch on. Like, things that happened at the Capitol, as well as a lot of pro-life news that I don't see on the mainstream media.
F, 40, US, YouTube user, self-identifies fairly right-wing
I like the conspiracy channels and I love Alex Belfield for the way he criticises people.
F, 62, US, YouTube user, self-identifies right-wing

Youth-based networks and the role of influencers

Over the past few years, the Digital News Report has documented how younger users have adopted more visually based social networks like Instagram, Snapchat, and now TikTok – often while also using older networks.

Though the key motivation for users of these networks is fun and entertainment, serious news topics such as mental health, climate change, COVID-19, and Black Lives Matter have been widely discussed in the last year.

The benefit is, it is comprehensive, it is all right there and at the same time it is relevant. So, if you are checking out like your friend’s stories you can also see the news or entertainment stories.
M, 26, US focus group, Snapchat user

These networks have also been used for political protests in countries like Peru and Indonesia. But when it comes to news, our research shows that many of the conversations are not framed by journalists but rather by ‘personalities’ or ordinary people.

Who are these ‘personalities’ that people pay attention to on social media? The definition used in our survey is rather broad, combining celebrities, such as actors and musicians, with social media influencers and reality stars.

Our open-ended responses suggest that much of the news circulating on Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok is related to subjects like health, fashion, and sexuality as opposed to more ‘traditional’ topics, such as politics or economics. Influencers often have strong opinions on these topics and frequently criticise the media for their perceived unfair treatment of women or LGBTQ individuals.

The social media influencers and comedians that I follow are extremely opinionated, which is a good thing. Because of the number of people there [on social networks], you get better sources to hear both sides of the story.
F, 19, India, Instagram user

Setting out facts clearly and accurately is not what these networks do. Indeed, in addition to all the other things they do, influencers and celebrities on social media have been found to be among the key distributors of misinformation about vaccines or the link with 5G networks.2 Could journalists and news organisations play a more prominent role on these networks and provide more credible information? Some media organisations have already ventured into this arena. The Guardian, for example, produces the ‘Fake or for Real?’ segment on Instagram, where a young journalist goes over the week's claims using the platform’s quiz feature. Strong opinions or a more comedic approach to news may not come naturally to many journalists steeped in traditions of objectivity and impartiality. Still several journalists have experimented with a different tone. The Washington Post’s ‘TikTok guy’ Dave Jorgenson, for example, creates regular amusing spoofs linked to the news. These examples focus on creating authentic content for a particular demographic using visual content designed to work on a mobile phone.

The Guardian 'Fake or For Real' segment on Instagram / Dave Jorgenson in a TikTok video

The success of these experiments, however, depends on the target audience, the network culture, and the algorithmic features of the social network (and sometimes they do not have any clear, direct form of monetisation). For instance, some networks, such as Snapchat, have a separate space for news. But on Instagram and TikTok, news stories blend in with videos and images that other users share. Given that the algorithms are mainly driven by popularity and relevance, content needs to be highly engaging to reach a wide audience. This is perhaps even more important for newsrooms who are actively using – or are planning to use – TikTok, where users spend the most time ‘flopping’ through hundreds of videos on the ‘For You’ page.

Conclusion

In this chapter, we have provided evidence of the differences between the main social networks in terms of social media news users’ motivations and who they pay the most attention to. Platform characteristics mostly play out in similar ways across countries, but the political and social context can make a significant difference. For instance, a social network that is incidentally used for news in Western countries might be a key news destination in countries in the Global South.

For every social network other than Facebook and Twitter, it is a minority of users who say they get news while using the platform in question, and even among the social media news users we focus on in this chapter, the centrality of getting the latest news as a motivation varies (and a desire for entertainment as well as incidental exposure looms large). While our data show that mainstream media capture some attention, even around news, and among social media news users, other voices play a larger role. This is particularly clear on newer networks, among younger people, and among those with lower levels of trust in news, who often seek out alternative perspectives in social media that they believe mainstream media are ignoring.

Social media are a complex space for mainstream media organisations to navigate. They have to share this space with a range of other content creators who do not have the same editorial principles and values. But given the time that people spend on social networks – and the dangers of false information and political propaganda – it still seems important that journalists and news organisations find ways to adapt to these more informal spaces, especially if they want to engage people with low interest in news and young people (groups that rarely go directly to news sites or apps), and especially if social media can convince publishers that the platform in question delivers a reasonable return on investment.

The tone and the formats that young people and others use, especially on newer networks, does not always come naturally to journalists. But the focus on fun and entertainment does not necessarily mean that young people are unwilling to talk about ‘serious’ issues on these platforms. On the contrary, from climate change to Black Lives Matter, many young people use their creativity to raise awareness about the issues that concern them, and celebrities and influencers who mostly focus on entertainment and similar issues sometimes play a key role in these discussions – at best, raising awareness and speaking out on important issues, at worst, spreading false or misleading information.

News organisations have started to recognise the importance of engaging in these spaces. In some cases, these efforts involve adapting existing content using new formats, but in others it may require an entirely new approach involving bespoke content, a diverse agenda and more editorial freedom assigned to younger journalists. The continued growth of the youth-orientated networks makes this work more vital than ever, even as the business side is rarely clear.

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Footnotes

1 Respondents first answered a question on which social networks they use for news. Then, for one randomly selected social network they answered two questions on motivations for using it for news and news sources they pay attention to.

2 Ahmadi, A., Chan, F. ‘Online Influencers have Become Powerful Vectors in Promoting False Information and Conspiracy Theories’, 8 Dec. 2020. https://firstdraftnews.org/latest/influencers-vectors-misinformation/