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Unpacking news participation and online engagement over time

Unpacking news participation and online engagement over time

14th June 2023

The digital age, and particularly the rise of social media, was initially associated with a utopian vision of global media access and participation. While internet users do have more means of digital participation than ever before, it has been less clear whether people in practice use it to actively participate in their news environments.

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Now, as publishers and journalists increasingly worry about news avoidance and disengagement, they are also grappling with a ‘new normal’ of more online but often less openly participatory news users. Smaller proportions of the public are participating with news actively (22% via posting and commenting), while growing numbers either participate reactively (31% via reading, liking, or sharing) or simply do not participate with news at all (47%). Online and offline participation is not an either/or proposition, as talking face to face about news (while also falling over time) even in an increasingly digital media environment remains, on average, the most widely reported form of news participation, at 32%.

Participation in public life and debate is often considered a central element of civic engagement in democratic societies. It matters, then, both how (and how much) people are participating in these debates as well as who is shaping them. In this chapter, we offer a deeper dive into news participation and online engagement. How do people participate with news, and how have these trends changed over time? And in what public discourse often depicts as a toxic or divisive digital environment, and where a significant number of users face very serious harassment, hate speech, and worse, how does the general public actually feel about engaging with news or talking about politics?

While negative online news experiences – and the very real, and often unequal, problems they are a result of – are important, we find they are not most respondents’ experience. Yet many nonetheless feel they must be wary of what they say as online and offline discourse become increasingly constrained.

Changing news participation and the rise of the passive consumer

For many years, we have tracked how people share or participate in news coverage during an average week. Looking at segmentations of those who engage with online news actively (by posting or commenting), reactively (by reading, liking, or sharing), and passively (by consuming news but not participating at all), in recent years we can see the rise of the passive news consumer (up 5 percentage points, on average, from 42% in 2018 to 47% in 2023) and reactive participator (up 6pp, from 25% to 31%) alongside a substantial fall in active participation (down 11pp, from 33% to 22%).

As we describe in the Executive Summary, active participators are now more likely to be men, higher educated, more politically partisan, and more interested in news – so while this group has declined to less than a quarter of news users, it increasingly looks like the (unrepresentative) traditional news audience.

Why do we see falls in open and active sharing alongside rises in passive consumption? There are a number of possible reasons. In part, it may be due to broader changes in which social networks people around the world are using for news – for example, falling Facebook use in general and particularly among younger audiences alongside Meta’s shift in focus away from news, and the increasing popularity of private messaging apps especially in Latin American, Asia-Pacific, and Eastern European markets. Other factors, including less optimism about or novelty surrounding the participatory opportunities of social media, may also be at play.

Of course, news participation varies considerably across countries and regions. For instance, we find higher overall trends of participation in African, South East Asian, and Latin American markets, and much lower participatory trends in markets in Central and Northern Europe, North America, and East Asia. It is important to note here that data from India and African markets are representative of younger, more educated English speakers – and thus, participation may be higher among these groups than the national population. However, it is likely that these trends reflect both sample differences as well as media environments with high reliance on and adoption of social networks. For instance, a third of people are active participators in Thailand (36%), where social media is by far the most important gateway to news, versus one in ten in Denmark (10%), where direct brand connections remain much stronger.

When we focus on individual forms of news participation, we find steady decreases over time for most forms of public participation with news, both online (e.g. liking, sharing, and commenting on news on social media) as well as offline (e.g. talking about the news with friends and colleagues). In the social media age, ‘shareability’ has become central to how digital news is produced, consumed, and (re)distributed. However, it is often unclear to what extent online news users actually embrace these forms of participation.

Our data on news sharing over time also show one closed form of sharing – via private messaging apps – growing, even amid steady declines in open forms of sharing and commenting as well as other closed forms of sharing. Across all markets since 2018, sharing news stories via social networks has steadily decreased, on average, from 26% to 19%, and sharing via email is down from 12% to 7%. Meanwhile, sharing news stories via messaging apps has increased, on average, from 17% to 22%. This is particularly pronounced in markets in Latin America, South East Asia, and Southern Europe with higher overall use of private messaging apps – such as Colombia (35%), Malaysia (33%), and Spain (30%), where nearly a third of people regularly share stories via instant messengers. It also maps onto broader rises across all markets in people’s overall use of messaging apps such as WhatsApp (+9pp) or Telegram (+12pp) during the same time frame.

But are those who share news privately distinct from those who share publicly? Four in ten (41%) of those who say they share publicly on social media also say they share privately on messaging apps – so while there is substantial overlap, a majority of those sharing via messaging apps are drawn specifically to this form of private sharing, or perhaps drawn away from public sharing.

It is difficult to fully explain these trends, but research suggests segments of the public may now avoid publicly sharing or participating in news because they perceive online debates as toxic (Mathews et al. 2022). This may be worsening as relatively smaller numbers of (often more male, more partisan, and more motivated) people take up most of the active news participation, and many in the middle appear to be increasingly wary of publicly engaging with news and politics online. While offline participation is not immune to over-time declines, it is telling that talking offline with friends and colleagues about news remains the most popular form of news participation among, on average, a third of news users (32%, down 7pp from 2018).

‘Don’t read the comments’: How people feel about engaging with news online

Whether fairly or not, the comments sections of media sites and social platforms are largely portrayed in public discourse to be a hellscape of toxic, uncivil content and online trolls. In qualitative research we conducted this year, a 64-year-old woman in the UK expressed, ‘I am shocked, however, by the vitriolic comments that were left on a recent article … I rarely identify with the commentators. They could of course be trolls.’

However, compared with other forms of news participation, reading comments online is among the most common activities the public does regularly. This year, we added two new types of news participation to our survey, asking respondents if they read the comments on social media posts as well as on news websites. On average across all markets, 31% of people say they read comments on social media news posts during an average week, and a quarter (25%) read comments on news websites. This compares to around one in five, on average, who share (19%) or comment on (18%) news stories in a social network, and one in ten who comment on a story on a news site (9%).

We also asked respondents how positive or negative their experience is engaging with news online or on social media, including reading or posting comments and talking to people about news. We find that while many have reason to be wary of online participation, across all markets, people are nearly three times more likely to say their experience engaging with news online is positive (33%) than negative (13%), with the largest swathe of the public describing their experience as neither positive nor negative (40%).

Given the public discourse around online engagement, it may be surprising that a large majority of people do not feel negatively about these experiences – but this may be, in part, because many are simply not engaging with news much online. We see some evidence of this when we look specifically at passive consumers (those who aren’t participating with news), who are far more likely to express ambivalence about engaging with online news (43%) than to say they feel positive (18%) or negative (15%).

It is clear that these perceptions have important ties to people’s broader news participation. Across all markets, people are, on average, twice as likely to actively participate with news when their overall perception of engaging with news online is positive (36%) than negative (18%). Further, those with negative online experiences (21%) are nearly four times as likely as those with positive online experiences (6%) to not participate at all with news. At the same time, those with negative experiences are still just as likely to talk face to face with friends or colleagues about news (36%) as those with positive online news experiences (37%) – which illustrates that how people perceive their online news experiences clearly affects online news participation but may not curb how they interact with news offline. (Of course, the direction of this relationship could also be the other way around, with participation influencing people’s online experiences.)

However, perceptions of online news experiences vary drastically among specific demographic groups, with important consequences for their participation with news. In some cases, the gender gap is very clear (7pp in the US), and in certain markets, politics plays a critical role in these perceptions as well. On average across all markets, people who are interested in politics are twice as likely to have positive online news experiences (48%) as those who are not interested (23%). While there is little difference between the left and right overall, in some countries – including the UK (10pp), US (7pp), Brazil (6pp), Germany (6pp), and India (5pp) – we find those on the political left are far more likely than those on the political right to say their online news experiences are negative.

Further, in markets like Portugal, Germany, France, and Brazil, the youngest cohort of 18–24s are significantly more likely than any other age group to say they have negative online news experiences. It may be that younger audiences are more likely to be politically left-leaning, or that they see more discourse about the internet – and, specifically, about online comment sections – being negative environments. It could also be that these age groups are often more present online and participate more frequently on digital platforms that tend to be overwhelming, either in terms of toxicity or the expectations they set on users. However, these trends are less present in markets such as the US, the UK, and Spain.

People’s perceptions of their online news experiences also play a role in how and why they take measures to change what they see on online platforms. On average across all markets, those with negative online experiences are slightly more likely than those with positive experiences to actively try to change their news feeds specifically to see less negative (28% vs. 24%, respectively) or toxic (33% vs. 29%, respectively) content.

Proportion with negative online news experiences that are trying to achieve each when changing what they see on online platforms

Average of selected markets

  • Sad


    are trying to see less negative or depressing content.

  • Toxic icon


    are trying to see less toxic content.

Q2_Algorithms_2023. You said that you try to change what news and information you see on online platforms. What are you trying to achieve? Please select all that apply. Q1_Participation_2023. How positive or negative is your experience of engagement with news online or on social media (e.g. reading or posting comments, talking to people about news, etc.)? Base: Those with negative online news experiences who try to change what they see via their algorithm = 1994 Note: Question asked in USA, UK, Germany, Spain, Belgium, Netherlands, Turkey, Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Brazil.

Participation in political conversations online and offline

Broadly, there is some sense that public debate is becoming more constrained, particularly when it comes to online debates about news and politics. This year, we also asked about how careful people feel they must be about what they say when they talk about politics online (via social networks, messaging groups, etc.) or offline (face to face, on the phone, etc.). On average across 46 markets, majorities of people express being wary of what they say in political conversations both online (54%) and offline (52%).

Perceptions of not needing to be careful about what one says remain consistently low across markets when it comes to online political conversation. However, we find much more nuance when it comes to offline political conversation. For instance, in less politically contentious European markets such as Finland (52%), Denmark (49%), and Germany (44%), nearly half of people feel they do not need to be careful about what they say offline. On the other hand, in markets like the US (28%), Australia (25%), or Brazil (16%), where political debates are often more polarised, this is not the case – with around a quarter or less of respondents feeling comfortable expressing their political opinions offline.

Overall, comparing responses within markets, people are generally just as likely to feel they must be careful about what they say online as they do offline. There are clearly chilling effects, but it is not always clear they are specific to digital media. In around half of all markets, majorities of respondents feel they must be careful about what they say when talking about politics online and offline. These concerns are more prominent among political partisans, the highly educated, and those who are more interested in politics, regardless of medium. Notably, in many cases, the markets where people are more concerned about discussing politics online are also often those with more active participators. (And some of them have mixed or low media freedom rankings, according to the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) World Press Freedom Index.) These perceptions are particularly high among respondents in countries such as the Philippines (81% online, 78% offline) and Peru (70% online, 67% offline), where citizens may feel the chilling effects of political unrest, online intimidation tactics, or other threats to free expression.


The changing patterns we reveal here for participation with news suggest, in many markets, less – and perhaps more constrained – public debate overall, despite the idealistic hopes with which we entered the digital age. The group of people who make up a large swathe of what the public sees as open participation with the news and information cycle continues to shrink. While people are still more likely to discuss news face to face than other forms of news participation and are more likely to feel positive or simply ambivalent about their experience engaging with news online, many still say they are wary of how they express themselves in both online and offline settings.

Why this is happening is less clear, but the changing nature of social platforms and the changing role of news within them, the dominance of an unrepresentative but vocal minority actively engaging online, and public discourse portraying the news as depressing, as well as the internet (and, specifically, comments sections on news sites and social media) as a uniquely toxic environment likely do not help.

These trends raise new questions surrounding what participation and engagement mean in an increasingly online but less openly participatory news environment. It may be less that participation has decreased than that the nature of participation is changing, as many publishers move away from open features of news participation like online comments sections and as social media platforms downrank or limit users’ interactions with news.

It remains to be seen how publishers seeking to build, maintain, and connect with their audiences will try to adjust to this ‘new normal’ of online participation. However, our findings illustrate a critical link between how people perceive their experiences engaging with news online and their willingness to actively participate in it. For both publishers and platform companies focused on better audience experiences, this speaks to the clear importance of fostering healthy digital spaces – including through practices like content moderation – as one means of promoting online participation, particularly when it comes to the large segment of the public that is increasingly wary of engaging online.

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