Chris Thilk

Pew: How People Use One or More Social Networks For News

Pew last week released the results of a new study on which social media sites Americans were getting their news from. Those numbers are not only insightful in and of themselves but also in regards to the ongoing conversation about what responsibility the companies operating those sites have to their role as news sources.

Facebook Dominates

Not only is Facebook the most widely-used social network, but half of the people who get their news on that site do so exclusively, meaning they don’t turn to any other social media site for additional information or context.

That stat needs to be used the next time Facebook is called to account for the influence it wields and who may be using it as a disinformation platform. That includes not only foreign but domestic actors. If 45% of U.S. adults use Facebook for news and half do so exclusively, that means it is the only source of news for roughly 23% of U.S. adults. The fact that the company does not seem to take that role seriously is breathtaking.

Messaging App Users Stay In That Lane

In general, the number of people who get news from messaging apps like Snapchat and WhatsApp are small – 5 and 2% respectively – but if they do they tend to stay in that category. So WhatsApp users also turn to Snapchat for news, as well as Instagram.

Twitter and YouTube Numbers Are Surprising

It was surprising to see that only 11% of respondents said they turn to Twitter for news, especially given its role in the conversation around breaking news events. That came into stark relief a few years ago when Twitter was filled with updates of the protests and other events in Ferguson, MO while Facebook dominated by the Ice Bucket Challenge. That contrast lead some to refer to Facebook’s as the “Ice Bucket Feed.”

Just as unexpected is the appearance of YouTube as the second most used site for news, with 18% of people turning there, 21% exclusively. Just last year there was a report that YouTube had fallen out of favor with media companies who were being lured by pitches from Facebook, Snapchat and others that focused on how they reach vital demographics and encourage viral sharing. YouTube apparently wants to lean into this role as just a few months ago it introduced a “Breaking News” section on the desktop and mobile app front pages.

[pilatevoice] What Is News? [/pilatevoice]

What’s left unaddressed in the Pew report is what the definition of “news” being used is. While all these platforms certainly deal in what might be called “hard” news, they also feature more than a little “softer” news, as well as content that can only be termed news through a significant stretching of definitions. Are people using these sites to stay in tune with politics and government?

A 2013 Pew study found that “Entertainment” accounted for 73% of the news people saw on Facebook while “National government and politics” was just 55% and “International” just 39%. So when people are going to YouTube or anywhere else for news, what does that mean? It can’t be assumed it’s the kind of news that would make the lead on a local TV broadcast or the front page of The New York Times.

Not only that, but the study doesn’t address what sources are providing that news. As Facebook seeks to increasingly marginalize the role of the traditional news publisher – at least those who don’t either pay for promoted posts or adopt whichever native format is preferred that week – it can’t be assumed that the news people are seeing is going through any sort of vetting or editorial review to determine veracity.

That’s exactly what the hearings Facebook, Twitter and Google took part in last week in Washington, D.C. were all about. If you’re getting your news not from a source that, whatever its editorial bias might be at least ascribes to traditional journalistic principles but from YourRightDaily or whatever that is designed to inflame passions through the spread of “emotional” content that plays into prejudices, the “facts” you’re getting are very different.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.