Social media as a news source

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Social media as a news source is the use of online social media platforms rather than more traditional media platforms to obtain news. Just as television turned a nation of people who listened to media content into watchers of media content in the 1950s to the 1980s, the emergence of social media has created a nation of media content creators. According to the Pew Research Center, 72% of American adults in 2019 used at least one social media site.[1]

As a participatory platform that allows for user-generated content[2][3] and sharing content within one's own virtual network,[4][2] using social media as a news source allows users to engage with news in a variety of ways,[5] including:

Relationship to traditional news sources[edit]

Unlike traditional news platforms such as newspapers and news shows, news content on social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and WhatsApp, allows users without having professional journalistic backgrounds to create news.[6][7] Some have raised concern over authoritative reliability on account of lenient moderation and the open-access element of these public platforms.[8]

Social media users may read a set of news that is different from what newspaper editors feature in the print press.[9] Using nanotechnology as an example, a study was conducted that studied tweets from Twitter and found that some 41% of the discourse about nanotechnology focused on its negative impacts, suggesting that a portion of the public may be concerned with how various forms of nanotechnology are used in the future.[10] Although optimistic-sounding and neutral-sounding tweets were equally likely to express certainty or uncertainty, the pessimistic tweets were nearly twice as likely to appear certain of an outcome than uncertain. These results imply the possibility of a preconceived negative perception of many news articles associated with nanotechnology. Alternatively, these results could also imply that posts of a more pessimistic nature that are also written with an air of certainty are more likely to be shared or otherwise permeate groups on Twitter. Similar biases need to be considered when the utility of new media is addressed, as the potential for human opinion to over-emphasize any particular news story is greater despite the general improvement in addressed potential uncertainty and bias in news articles than in traditional media.[11]

In order to compete in this rapidly changing technological environment, there has been an upheaval of traditional news sources onto online spaces.[12] The production and circulation of newspaper prints have continued to globally decline in accordance with the increasing presence of news outlets on social media.[13] Prominent platforms such as Twitter and Facebook have been key in engaging users through the integration of journalistic news into their newsfeeds.[14] This feature has now become a foundational part of these apps' interfaces.

Social media also incentivizes individual professional journalists to share their reporting and interact with audiences on social platforms to boost engagement and advance their careers.[15]

Use as a news source by adults[edit]

Globally, data from 2020 shows that over 70% of adult participants from Kenya, South Africa, Chile, Bulgaria, Greece, and Argentina utilized social media for news while those from France, the UK, the Netherlands, Germany, and Japan were reportedly less than 40 percent.[16]

According to the Pew Research Center, 20% of adults in the United States in 2018 said they get their news from social media "often," compared to 16% who said they often get news from print newspapers, 26% who often get it from the radio, 33% who often get it from news websites, and 49% who often get it from TV.[17] The same survey found that social media was the most popular way for American adults age 18–29 to get news, the second-to-last most popular way for Americans age 20–49 to get news, and the least popular way for American adults age 50-64 and 65+ to get the news.

In 2019, the Pew Research Center found that over half of Americans (54%) either got their news "sometimes" or "often" from social media, and Facebook was the most popular social media site where American adults got their news.[18] However, at least 50% off all respondents reported that the following were either a "very big problem" or a "moderately big problem" for getting news on social media:

  • One-sided news (83%)
  • Inaccurate news (81%)
  • Censorship of the news (69%)
  • Uncivil discussions about the news (69%)
  • Harassment of journalists (57%)
  • News organizations or personalities being banned (53%)
  • Violent or disturbing news images or videos (51%)

In a later survey from the same year, the Pew Research Center reported that 18% of American adults reported that the most common way they get news about politics and the election was from social media.[19]

Use of Social Media Platforms (In General and as News Sources) by American Adults in 2019[20]
Social media platform Percent who use platform Percent who get news or news headlines on platform
Facebook 71% 52%
YouTube 74% 28%
Twitter 23% 17%
Instagram 38% 14%
LinkedIn 27% 8%
Reddit 13% 8%
Snapchat 23% 6%
WhatsApp 18% 4%
Tumblr 4% 1%
Twitch 5% 1%
TikTok 3% 0%

Use as a news source by young people[edit]

Globally, there is evidence that through social media, youth have become more directly involved in protests,[21] social campaigns [22] and generally, in the sharing of news across multiple platforms.[23]

In the United States, Common Sense Media conducted a 2020 nationally representative survey of American teens (ages 13–18) that found that the most common way teens got news was from personalities, influencers, and celebrities followed on social media or YouTube (39%), despite trusting this type of news source less than other forms, such as local newspapers or local TV news networks.[24] The most commonly mentioned sources on social media or YouTube included PewDiePie, Trevor Noah, CNN, Donald Trump, and Beyoncé.

Popularity and Trust of Different News Sources by U.S. Teens Ages 13–18 in 2020[24]
News source Percent who get news "often" from source Percent who trust information from the source "a lot"
Personalities/influencers/celebrities followed on social media or YouTube 39% 15%
News aggregators (e.g., Google news) 27% 18%
Digital media outlets/blogs (e.g., Buzzfeed) 21% 10%
Traditional TV news networks 16% 21%
Local newspapers/TV shows 13% 28%
Comedy shows (e.g., Last Week Tonight with John Oliver) 9% 7%
Podcasts 9% 6%
Traditional print/online newspapers 6% 22%

This popularity of using social media as a news source in the United States is consistent with previous data. Based on interviews with 61 teenagers, conducted from December 2007 to February 2011, most of the teen participants from American high schools reported reading print newspapers only "sometimes," with fewer than 10% reading them daily. The teenagers instead reported learning about current events from social media sites such as Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, and blogs.[25]

Effects on individual and collective memory[edit]

News media and television journalism have been a key feature in the shaping of American collective memory for much of the twentieth century.[26][27] Indeed, since the United States' colonial era, news media has influenced collective memory and discourse about national development and trauma. In many ways, mainstream journalists have maintained an authoritative voice as the storytellers of the American past. Their documentary style narratives, detailed exposes, and their positions in the present make them prime sources for public memory. Specifically, news media journalists have shaped collective memory on nearly every major national event – from the deaths of social and political figures to the progression of political hopefuls. Journalists provide elaborate descriptions of commemorative events in U.S. history and contemporary popular cultural sensations. Many Americans learn the significance of historical events and political issues through news media, as they are presented on popular news stations.[28] However, journalistic influence is growing less important, whereas social networking sites such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, provide a constant supply of alternative news sources for users.

As social networking becomes more popular among older and younger generations, sites such as Facebook and YouTube, gradually undermine the traditionally authoritative voices of news media. For example, American citizens contest media coverage of various social and political events as they see fit, inserting their voices into the narratives about America's past and present and shaping their own collective memories.[29][30] An example of this is the public explosion of the Trayvon Martin shooting in Sanford, Florida. News media coverage of the incident was minimal until social media users made the story recognizable through their constant discussion of the case. Approximately one month after the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin, its online coverage by everyday Americans garnered national attention from mainstream media journalists, in turn exemplifying media activism. In some ways, the spread of this tragic event through alternative news sources parallels that of Emmett Till – whose murder by lynching in 1955 became a national story after it was circulated in African-American and Communist newspapers.

Societal examples[edit]

On October 2, 2013, the most common hashtag throughout the United States was "#governmentshutdown", as well as ones focusing on political parties, Barack Obama, and healthcare. Most news sources have Twitter, and Facebook, pages, like CNN and the New York Times, providing links to their online articles, getting an increased readership. Additionally, several college news organizations and administrators have Twitter pages as a way to share news and connect to students.[31] According to "Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2013",[32] in the US, among those who use social media to find news, 47% of these people are under 45 years old, and 23% are above 45 years old. However social media as a main news gateway does not follow the same pattern across countries. For example, in this report, in Brazil, 60% of the respondents said social media was one of the five most important ways to find news online, 45% in Spain, 17% in the UK, 38% in Italy, 14% in France, 22% in Denmark, 30% in the U.S., and 12% in Japan.[32] Moreover, there are differences among countries about commenting on news in social networks, 38% of the respondents in Brazil said they commented on news in social network in a week. These percentages are 21% in the U.S. and 10% in the UK. The authors argued that differences among countries may be due to culture difference rather than different levels of access to technical tools.[32]

Protesters from the 2011 Arab Spring protest in Aden, Al Mansoora.

An influential example of social media making news more accessible and widely spread would be the Arab Spring. Protesters used social media platforms, to create plans for in person protests and to spread video and images captured from the events that were created online.[33]

Rainie and Wellman have argued that media making now has become a participation work,[34] which changes communication systems. The center of power is shifted from only the media (as the gatekeeper) to the peripheral area, which may include government, organizations, and out to the edge, the individual.[35] These changes in communication systems raise empirical questions about trust to media effect. Prior empirical studies have shown that trust in information sources plays a major role in people's decision making.[36] People's attitudes more easily change when they hear messages from trustworthy sources. In the Reuters report, 27% of respondents agree that they worry about the accuracy of a story on a blog.[32] However, 40% of them believe the stories on blogs are more balanced than traditional papers because they are provided with a range of opinions. Recent research has shown that in the new social media communication environment, the civil or uncivil nature of comments will bias people's information processing even if the message is from a trustworthy source,[37] which bring the practical and ethical question about the responsibility of communicator in the social media environment.

The case study on the 2013 urban protests in Brazil reflects how digital communication form a new type of e-democracy in mass societies.[38] The case study reveals how Brazilians used social media to organize manifestations regarding cost of public transportation, violence, homophobia, and corruption. The young population dominated the demonstrations. They posted videos and pictures on WhatsApp chat groups, created online events on Facebook, and gathered over 250.000 protestors on the streets. Consequently, Brazilians were able to modify functions in an institutionalized system, not only by promoting awareness on certain social problems, but also by inducing president Dilma Rousseff's impeachment in 2016.[38]

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