Here’s what our research says about news audiences on Twitter, the platform now known as X
Twitter, the platform now known as X, has seen a lot of changes in 2023. Since the takeover by Elon Musk in October 2022, many of the platform’s functions have changed or been removed, and it has received a total rebrand. When it comes to news and news organisations on the platform, big changes have included the overhaul of the verified checkmarks system and the removal of news headlines from article links.
Given the rapid pace of change, it’s hard to say what the future of news on X will be. But we can look back at what we’ve learned about Twitter through 10 years of survey data from the Digital News Report, especially what we know about how the platform is used for news. All the survey questions were asked while the platform was known as Twitter, so these findings refer to Twitter – and we will therefore use "Twitter" throughout most of this piece. Many findings will likely continue to apply to X, so for now we refer to them in the present tense. Others, however, will need to be revised is a when a new consensus emerges from the available research.
Big takeaways from our research – and work conducted by others – include:
- Twitter’s user base in general and for news is not representative of the wider population, with a minority in all countries using the platform.
- Twitter users are more likely to be men than users of other social media platforms. Users also tend to be more well-off and well-educated, as well as more interested in news and politics. But the platform’s users are no more partisan than users of other platforms (or more partisan in markets like the US than the population we survey).
- Use of Twitter for news is highest in markets in Asia and Latin America, with lowest usage in mainland Europe.
- Even though the platform has undergone many changes, Twitter use for any purpose and for news has remained remarkably stable in our data over the last 10 years.
- Twitter, when compared to other platforms, is considered more of a destination for news – particularly news about politics from mainstream brands, smaller/alternative sources, and politicians.
- There is some evidence that people form partisan, like-minded communities clustered around some political topics on Twitter. However, research also indicates that users are likely to be exposed to more diverse news and perspectives as a result of using the platform.
- While misinformation does circulate on Twitter and there are legitimate concerns about this, past research indicates that the prevalence and reach of false information has been more limited than assumed. However, empirical research has not yet studied the effect of recent changes to the platform.
Where is Twitter used most?
Looking at all the markets surveyed in the Digital News Report 2023, we can see that the home of Twitter – the US – is not the market where its usage is highest among the population. A quarter (25%) of people in our US survey say they use Twitter for any purpose, while 14% use it for news. This is lower than the proportion of people in many Asian markets – though, in absolute terms, the US has the highest total number of Twitter users, followed by Japan. In Europe, usage of Twitter in our survey is relatively high in the UK, Ireland, Spain, and Turkey. Elsewhere in Europe, usage is limited.
But these figures just show a snapshot of Twitter use from our 2023 data. We can also look at how the use of Twitter in general – and for news – has changed over time. Focusing on the markets for which we have data going back several years, we can see how usage has remained stable in places like the UK (see chart below), where it has been used for any purpose by a higher proportion of the population than in the US. Use of Twitter for news in the UK and Brazil has also remained remarkably stable, while its use for news in the US has fluctuated somewhat year-on-year. Use of Twitter for any purpose and for news in Australia has increased slightly over the years, while adoption in France and Germany has remained consistently low.
Who uses Twitter the most for news?
Looking at our data across all markets, higher proportions of men and those in younger age groups say they use Twitter for news (see chart below). This is also the case for those on higher incomes and with higher levels of education. Twitter is also more heavily used for news by those who are most interested in news and politics.
These findings are perhaps not surprising for a platform which has come to be known as a destination for news and politics. Its adoption by high-profile users like politicians, celebrities, and news media figures has helped make Twitter a go-to place to hear about what is going on in real-time – often directly from the people who are part of the daily news cycle. Since its inception, journalists have been attracted to Twitter because it affords them an ideal way to break news and share updates. It has also allowed them tap into public opinion and find sources.
Journalists’ use of Twitter, and its use as a stand-in for public opinion, however, has also been criticised, since the platform can – depending on the issue in question – present a skewed image of society. What our findings about Twitter's user base in general and for news show is that the ‘public opinion’ journalists are tapping into comes from a particular slice of people – more male, well-off, and invested in news and politics – who do not represent everyone (see also Mellon & Prosser, 2017; Barberá & Rivero, 2015).
We can also see how different Twitter’s user base is to other platforms using our data. Compared to the users of other legacy platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram – as well as newer platforms like TikTok – Twitter users in general and for news are again more male, well-off, and interested in news and politics.
How has Twitter's use for news changed?
Compiling all of our data from 2014–2023 across a basket of 12 markets we have been tracking over this period (UK, USA, Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Ireland, Denmark, Finland, Japan, Australia, and Brazil), we can see that the total proportion of people who use Twitter for news has not shifted in any substantial way over time, nor has the age profile of Twitter news users changed (see news chart below).
Gender-wise, the proportion of men and women using Twitter across the 12 tracked markets has remained the same since 2014, with no major shifts in the trend lines. This overall picture also shows us how men have been consistently higher users of the platform than women.
In terms of political leaning, across the 12 tracked markets, the proportion of all those on the political right using Twitter for any purpose and for news from 2016–2023 increased slightly from 19% and 9%, respectively, to 22% and 13% (an increase of 3-4%). These increases in usage are not reflected among those people on the political left or centre, where use for any purpose and for news did not increase over the same time period. However, it must be pointed out that Twitter’s userbase is not necessarily any more partisan than other platforms (see table above) or any more partisan than the general population in markets like the US.
How is Twitter used for news?
Despite some changes to Twitter’s userbase, as well as shifts in the relationship between Twitter and news organisations, the platform is still seen as a destination for news and politics. More than other social platforms, Twitter is viewed as a place to get news, commentary, and alternative perspectives. Data from our 2021 Digital News Report showed how a quarter (25%) of Twitter news users said the main reason they use it is because it’s a destination for the latest news. Compare this to Facebook, where only 13% say the same, and where one third of people (32%) say they mostly get news on the platform when they are there for other reasons.
Digging into the types of news sources people pay most attention to on different platforms, we can also see that Twitter is a place where a majority of Twitter news users say they pay attention to mainstream news brands and journalists (see chart below from our 2023 data). They also say they pay attention to politicians, political activists, and smaller or alternative news sources – much more so than is the case on other social platforms.
There are some differences in news attention by age. Older Twitter users say they tend to pay more attention to mainstream news brands and politicians when it comes to news on the platform. Younger users (under 35) also say they pay most attention to these sources, but they are also far more likely than those over 35 to pay attention to celebrities and social media personalities for news content.
Finally, the news topics people say they pay most attention to on Twitter are also a reflection of the platform’s identity. More than other platforms, a higher proportion of Twitter news users in our data go there for updates on national politics and news about business, finance, and economics.
What does research say about ‘echo chambers’ on Twitter?
Many have argued that Twitter users, through their own selection decisions or in combination with the platform’s design and algorithms, risk ending up in partisan echo chambers – only speaking to and consuming (political) content from people they agree with. Researchers have found that Twitter does have a reputation for heated political debate and its users, particularly those who get news there, do tend to be quite politically active (Mitchell, Shearer, & Stocking, 2021). It is worth keeping in mind, however, that research also indicates that a limited number of people, including partisans on the platform, attract a disproportionate amount of attention (Wojcik & Hughes, 2019).
Research finds that like-minded echo chamber communication patterns can be observed on Twitter when it comes to online discussions of some political issues (Barberá et al., 2015; Bastos et al., 2018), but this could simply reflect people’s general preference for like-minded communication, both online and offline. If we consider news use more broadly, research shows that platforms such as Twitter expose people to more (politically) diverse news than they otherwise might see (Stier et al., 2022; Fletcher et al., 2023) – even if they’re not specifically looking for it (Fletcher & Nielsen, 2018) – which to some extent runs counter to the ‘echo chambers’ argument (see Ross Arguedas et al., 2022 for an overview). In the US, among those on the political left and right, there is a high degree of overlap in the news sources followed by Twitter users – and accessed offline, too – which is also an indication that users are not entirely bound up in isolated ideological cocoons (Eady et al., 2019).
As an indication of Twitter’s tendency to expose people to more news, a simple breakdown of our data shows how a higher proportion of Twitter users (28% of them) accessed seven or more online news sources in the last week, compared to users of other platforms, those who don’t use social media, and the total sample in general. This is perhaps again a reflection of how Twitter has been seen as a destination for news.
What about misinformation on Twitter?
There have been legitimate concerns about false information on Twitter (and other platforms) for many years. But as a result of changes at the company, renewed concerns have been raised about a potential increase in the amount of false and misleading information spreading on Twitter (now X). Elon Musk laid off much of the company’s workforce, including its content moderation staff, and has publicly voiced his commitment to greater ‘free speech’ on the platform (which has been interpreted as a desire for lighter-touch content moderation).
Our data from January/February 2023 do show that Twitter users have a higher degree of concern about false information online than other people (see chart below). However, this is not unique to 2023. Also, those with higher levels of income, education, and interest in news and politics (i.e., people more likely to be Twitter users) are more concerned about false information online, so this concern may be a reflection of the types of people who use Twitter, rather than something about the platform itself.
Our findings regarding people’s higher degree of concern do not necessarily mean Twitter is more awash with false information than other platforms. In general, when it comes to misinformation, it is important to note that misinformation online – and people’s contact with it – is less prevalent than is assumed, and the focus on online misinformation misses out the falsehoods that spread offline in our day-to-day lives (Altay et al., 2023). Exposure to or engagement with false information online is far outweighed by people’s use of the internet for news, memes, how-to videos, and all other types of content (Allen et al., 2020). Also, the presence of misinformation and the fact that it is shared does not necessarily mean the content is believed.
One research team estimated that, in the lead up to the 2019 European parliamentary elections, only 4% of media content circulating on Twitter was from ‘fake news’ sites or known Russian propaganda sources (Marchal et al., 2019). Compare this to 34% of content which was from mainstream news outlets. In the context of the 2016 US election, research found that 1% of Twitter users were exposed to 80% of fake news on the platform and 0.1% of users were responsible for almost 80% of this content that was shared (Grinberg et al., 2019), with most content being from mainstream news outlets (Bovet & Makse, 2019). The overall proportion of content from false or misleading sites on Twitter was found to have reduced during the 2020 US election, where most content again came from more moderate outlets (Flamino et al., 2023). False and misleading content on Twitter is seen and spread by a very small group of people – and it is largely outweighed by content from moderate and mainstream sources (Rao et al., 2022). Sharing of this type of content on Twitter is strongly motivated by partisan animus (Osmundsen et al., 2021).
It is important to point out that these findings apply to Twitter as it was before the Musk takeover. What effect the changes implemented by Musk will have on the amount of false and misleading content on the platform (as well as the amount of hate speech and other types of content) is an urgent question for future empirical research. And none of this is to discount the fact, however, that false and misleading content does exist on Twitter and that it can and does have real negative impacts on individuals (disproportionately certain kinds of people) and the public sphere. But misinformation should also be put in context: One study found that fake news accounted for an estimated 0.15% of Americans’ total media diets, while 14% of that diet was mainstream news (Allen et al., 2020). This may be different in other contexts, however, and Twitter has been used as a tool for concerted political trolling efforts in places like India and Brazil.
The Future of X
While some had predicted a mass exodus of Twitter users after Elon Musk’s takeover (and a possible collapse of the platform), we have not yet seen this materialise – at least in our 2023 data. People have voiced their complaints about the platform for years, but we find that Twitter’s usage over the past ten years has remained remarkably stable overall, with a persistent minority of the online population (around 11%) using the platform on a weekly basis for news. We will continue to monitor this as part of the Digital News Project.
The platform known as a destination for news also faces an uncertain future as the relationship between the press and Elon Musk is not always positive. Questions from journalists to Twitter’s press team have been met with an automated poop emoji reply – a sign of how Musk feels about many journalists. And news outlets have noted a decline in referrals from Twitter (as well as Facebook) in recent years. This has led to some soul-searching among journalists as to whether they should continue to use the platform so heavily, and some news outlets have questioned whether they should continue to invest time and resources into it (see Newman, 2023). For us, all of this raises a question about how the platform now known as X will be used for news in the future – something our work will continue to analyse.
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