Our podcast: Digital News Report 2021. Episode 2: How and why do consumers access news on social media?

"It's important that journalists and news organisations find ways to adapt to these more informal spaces," says Simge Andı
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Read this year's Digital News Report here.

28th June 2021

The topic

In this episode of our Digital News Report 2021 podcast series we look at news and social media use, motivations for using different social networks, and the different types of news sources that people pay attention to on various platforms.

The speakers

Simge Andı is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Reuters Institute. She works on the Digital News Project, and uses survey and experimental data to study the consumption and sharing of online news. She authored the Digital News Report 2021 section on how people access news on social media.

Our host Federica Cherubini is Head of Leadership Development at the Reuters Institute. She is an expert in newsroom operations and organisational change, with ten years of experience spanning major publishers, research institutes and editorial networks around the world.

The podcast

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The transcript

On different platforms 

Federica: So we know that social media has played an important role across societies for over the past decade or more including how many people access the news. But, in that time, the networks people use and the way in which social networks showcase news have changed considerably. Some existing platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube evolve both in terms of how they work and who uses them and we’ve also seen newer networks such as Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok grow in importance.

Simge, can you explain to us what the findings of the report are this year in terms of how people use different social media to access the news?

Simge: Of course. So for the last seven years, we’ve been tracking the changing mix of social networks for any purpose and also for news usage. And this year we wanted to cast light on the always changing news environment on social media by setting out the differences between networks and also what social media news users say their motivation is for accessing news on these platforms. We also wanted to understand a bit better who they say they paid the most attention to. And we focused on the six largest open social networks. This is measured in terms of weekly use. And we do this in our survey conducted across 46 news markets that we study in the report. And these are mainly Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and, finally, TikTok. And of these, we pay particular attention to newer platforms with a younger user base; by these I mean Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat. And as we know much less about news usage on these networks – we believe this is quite important to figure out.

So just to give you an overall idea – our findings show that Facebook is still the leading platform where people find and share news across most markets but YouTube has been growing too. For instance, YouTube now matches Facebook in terms of views for general purposes – for any purpose. We also have the relatively new and more visual networks that some people are getting their news on such as Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok and these are mostly used by younger people. For instance, Instagram is mostly used by those who are younger than 45 while TikTok, which was founded in 2016 and is growing rapidly around the world, is more common among younger people; so those who are younger than 25.

On why people use different social media 

Federica: And what motivations do they give for using these different platforms for accessing news?

Simge: So we find some clear differences in terms of why people use these different networks for news. For instance, while Facebook is far more widely used as a network where people come across news, our data shows that it’s typically not a platform where news consumers intentionally go to access the news. What we find is across most countries many of those who use Facebook for news they say that they pick up information incidentally while they’re on the platform doing other things. Twitter, in contrast, is often seen much more of a primary destination for news where people go to learn about breaking news for instance. Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok on the other hand are very clearly seen as a fun and entertaining way to pass the time in keeping with the younger and more playful nature of these networks in general. Finally, YouTube news users – they have a range of motivations including a strong focus on looking for alternative perspectives on the news but also some fun and entertainment like we see on Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok.

On variations by country 

Federica: And have you seen different patterns in different parts of the world?

Simge: Yes we do. There are some commonalities but some differences are also quite interesting. For instance, the UK is a good example of how these different motivations across the three largest networks play out. For instance, 21% of people who use Twitter for news in the UK say that they do so because it’s a good place to access the latest news. In contrast with Twitter, YouTube is a platform where some people find alternative perspectives. For instance, 26% of YouTube news users in the UK say this – that they get alternative perspectives that they can’t find in the mainstream media. While others use it mainly for fun and entertainment – this is around 15%. And the majority of social media news users on Facebook; 56% in the UK – they mostly see news incidentally. Of course, I should mention that our analysis focuses on those who say that they not only use a particular platform but also have used it in the last week to find and share news. So these percentages are actually still a minority of all social media users in the UK. But, that said, these patterns are typical of many other western countries including the United States.

Less popular than Facebook overall – for instance Twitter is widely used by journalists and politicians – and it is where the news gets broken first. We see this all the time – and attracting all these people with a strong interest in the news. We see a slightly different pattern elsewhere. For instance, in much of Latin America and Asia, many more Facebook users say they get the latest news while on they’re on the platform even though we still see some incidental news usage on Facebook. For instance, in Malaysia, our data shows that Facebook is more of a news destination where 22% of Facebook news users say that they go to the platform for their latest news.

Federica: On social media we find information and opinion shared by lots of different actors. That could be ordinary people, brands but also activist groups, politicians and, of course, news media that our users follow or that the platform recommends to you.

What do we know about who different audience groups actually pay attention to across networks?

On popular news sources 

Simge: Yes. To figure out who people pay the most attention to, this year we gave our respondents a range of options that we usually see on social media and basically asked them to tell us where they placed the most attention when it came to news again specifically. And, once again, we found some similar patterns across some countries and also lots of differences. To give you an example, for instance in the United States, we find that on both Facebook and Twitter the largest proportion of social media news users say that they’re most likely to pay attention to mainstream media and journalists. And this is good news for the news media. However, many users also appreciate the alternative perspectives that they find in some platforms. For instance, among social media news users again, attention on YouTube tends to be evenly split between a range of sources of news and entertainment including celebrities, politicians and also ordinary people.

 And we looked a bit deeper into audience characteristics we find some differences across groups. For instance, younger groups tend to the most attention to internet personalities on platforms such as Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok. We also found that, in general, for instance there are differences between those who have high levels of trust in the news versus those who have lower levels of trust in the news. What we find is that those with lower levels of trust are more likely to seek out alternative sources and less likely to say that they pay attention to mainstream news outlets. And this is particularly the case on YouTube in the US where we see all these partisan voices that found a good following on YouTube. We find that, in the US on YouTube, those with lower trust levels are actually five times more likely to say that they pay attention to alternative sources on YouTube.

On younger audiences 

Federica: For the past few years, we’ve also seen documented in digital news report how younger users have adopted more visually based social networks like you were saying like Instagram, Snapchat and now TikTok. What findings can you share with us from this year’s report on younger audiences and their behaviour on social media when it comes to news? Who do they pay attention to?

Simge: Yes. So these newer and mobile-based social networks like Instagram and Snapchat and TikTok – they’ve become popular among many young people; especially they were, I think, life-saving during the lockdowns and all that last year’s drama but they’re mostly used as a fun and entertaining way to pass the time as we also show in the report. But what we also witnessed is that these newer networks they’ve also been central to a new way of protest by younger people across the world. From the US with Black Lives Matter protest to Peru with anti-corruption protests – we see that Instagram, TikTok – they’ve been used by younger people in these political events. And when it comes to news, our research shows that many of the conversations on these networks are actually at the moment not framed by journalists but rather by internet personalities or ordinary people that users follow.

What do we mean by this? What do we mean by these personalities – internet personalities that people say that they pay attention to on these networks? The definition we used in our survey is rather broad and we combined celebrities such as actors and musicians with social media influencers and reality stars. And what we find is that, for instance, 40% of under 35-year-olds who used TikTok for news, they say that they paid the most attention to these internet personalities.

So I guess to wrap up – in networks with a younger audience such as TikTok, Snapchat and Instagram, the space that’s usually covered by journalists and media organisations on other platforms like Twitter and Facebook is currently filled with information supplied by these internet personalities and also ordinary people.

On journalists and social media 

Federica: Social media is a complex space for mainstream media organisations to navigate. Based on the research for the people like the journalists and the media people who are listening to us, what advice would you give to journalists on what approach they should adopt on social media?

Simge: Yes. A very difficult question and, as you said, this is a challenging space for the news media and also independent journalists. There are many different platforms with different functionalities and audiences and media organisations have to share this space with a range of other content creators who do not have the same editorial principles or who might not have the same editorial principles and values like objectivity or impartiality. Some influencers are very vocal about certain issues that you would not find the same partiality and maybe the same editorial principles that news organisations have. But, given the time that people spend on social networks and also the dangers of misinformation and political propaganda, I think it still seems very 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 also young people. These are groups that rarely go directly to news sites and apps so I think it’s so important that news organisations adapt to these networks. And we also see that some good examples of this – for instance the Guardian is active on Instagram. There’s this segment called, “Fake or For Real” that I also follow where a young journalist goes over the week’s claims using the platform’s quiz feature. Others try a more comedic approach. For instance, the Washing Post TikTok guy is the prime example of this. He has various spoofs about serious issues ranging from Covid vaccines to elections. BBC’s Sophia Smith Galer again also has really interesting storytelling examples. There are many good examples and I think that the numbers are growing which is great.

Of course, that said, we should also be a little bit cautious I think because the tone and the formats that young people and others use – especially on these newer networks – it does not always come naturally to some journalists or news organisations. And I think the success of these experiments – if we call these “experiments” – it depends on the target audience, the network culture, the algorithmic features of the social network and it doesn’t always have a very clear, direct form of monetisation for new organisations. Let me illustrate it a bit – for instance, some networks such as Snapchat – they have a separate space for news. But on Instagram and TikTok, news stories have to blend in with videos and images that other users share. And given that algorithms are mainly driven by popularity and relevance, content on these networks 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 because this app is where users spend the most time flopping through hundreds of medias on the For You page. And yes these networks are mostly centred around entertainment but, again, this does not necessarily mean that young people are unwilling to talk about serious issues on these platforms. On the contrary, just because investing in these platforms does not necessarily mean just investing in fun and entertaining topics. For instance, from climate change to Black Lives Matter – many young people use their creativity to raise awareness about issues that matter to them. And sometimes these celebrities and influencers that they follow on these networks help them out by raising their voice in these discussions and this is, at best, raising awareness about these issues – about these important issues – but it could also be a worse outcome which is they could end up spreading false or misleading information.

So, to wrap up, I think news organisations have already started to recognise the importance of engaging in these spaces; especially the newer networks. And, in some cases, these efforts – they involve adapting their existing content and existing formats and using new formats. But, in others; especially the newer ones – may require an entirely new approach that involves unique content designed for the specific platforms and a diverse agenda that includes both hard and soft topics and I guess more editorial freedom assigned to younger journalists who are more familiar with the language of these platforms. And I guess the continued growth of the youth focused networks like TikTok I think makes this a work more vital than ever even if the business side is not that clear for news organisations.

Explore the Digital News Report 2021 here

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