How we get our political news can make a big difference in how well-informed we are and in how likely we are to encounter—and believe—misinformation.
A Pew Research Center report published in July shows that Americans who rely primarily on social media for news—which describes about 18% of adults in the U.S.—tend to know less about the 2020 election, less about the coronavirus pandemic, and less about political news in general than people who rely on news websites, cable or network TV, radio, and print.
Those who depend on social media are also more likely than other news consumers to be exposed to made-up news, such as the conspiracy theory that powerful people planned the pandemic and invented the coronavirus in a lab, and to give credence to falsehoods.
These conclusions come from the Center’s American News Pathways project, which since last November has been exploring the connection between Americans’ news habits and their news awareness. Rather than conducting just a single poll, the news project is taking six deep dives into a pool of nearly 10,000 adults representing a demographic and geographic cross section of the nation who have agreed to periodically be surveyed.
“What the project has done is weave together where people are turning for their news—what their information and news sources are—and how that connects to their perceptions and knowledge about certain events,” says Amy Mitchell, the Center’s director of journalism research. “It’s answering the question: How do people’s sense of what’s happening in the U.S.—in the world—connect to their information sources?
“The overarching finding,” she says, “is that U.S. adults who mainly get their political news through social media tend to be less engaged with news. They follow the news less closely, and they tend to be less knowledgeable on a wide range of current events and broad political-knowledge questions about the U.S.”
Over nine months and multiple surveys, Center researchers asked respondents 29 different fact-based questions that touched on a variety of topics related to the news, from economics to President Donald Trump’s impeachment and the COVID-19 pandemic. Across the 29 questions, the average proportion that got each question right was lower among Americans who rely most on social media for political news than among those who rely most on other types of news sources (except for local TV).
The percentage of American adults who use social media for news, sometimes or often, is now at 55%, Mitchell says—up from the presidential election of 2016, when 42% of adults got at least some news from social media.
The report also found that just 8% of Americans who prefer social media for news are closely following this year’s election, compared with four times as many who get news mainly from cable TV (37%) or print (33%). Only adults who depend on local TV stations for their news are comparable to the social media group in their low attention to the election.
Nearly three-quarters of adults (71%) are active on Facebook, and about half (52%) draw at least some news from there, Mitchell says. The next most important source is YouTube. Other sources include Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, Snapchat, and WhatsApp.
Overall, social media ranks second among all forms of media as a pathway to news, the report says. The 18% who mainly get their news this way compares with 25% who rely on news websites, such as those managed by newspapers, news broadcasters, cable networks, and Internet-only providers.
Cable TV and local TV each are the main pathway for 16% of adults. Network TV comes in next at 13%, followed by radio at 8%. The print version of newspapers (as distinguished from their websites) runs last at 3%.
At the same time that social media usage has increased as a news platform, the credibility of traditional news sources has eroded, Mitchell says. Center research conducted last year showed that trust in The New York Times and The Washington Post, to cite two examples, fell significantly from 2014 to 2019, particularly among Republicans.
And demographic factors play a role in who goes where for news, the report says.
Nearly half of the Americans who focus on social media—48%—are under 30 years old, making them Millennials or members of Generation Z. They are, by far, the youngest group.
At the other end of the age spectrum, older Americans are much more likely to turn first to print or cable or network TV. Of adults who say that print is their most common way of getting news, 47% are 65 or older.
Partly because they’re young, people who rely primarily on social media for news have lower incomes and are less likely to hold a college degree than people in the other groups, with the exception of the local TV viewers.
“What strikes me is that the people who get most of their political news from local TV are similar in many respects to people who are getting their news from social media,” says Eugene Kiely, director of FactCheck.org, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania that monitors the factual accuracy of national political figures and acts as a self-described “consumer advocate” for voters.
He says that he wonders if many of the social media users would be sitting on the couch watching local TV news were it not for the advent of Facebook. “There are very interesting parallels,” he says.
Kiely calls it “very concerning” that the growing cohort of social media users is paying so little attention to the Nov. 3 election, which he says makes them particularly vulnerable to the sort of deliberate misinformation that came in waves in the late stage of the 2016 presidential race.
As of June, more than a quarter of people who rely most on social media had heard “a lot” about the false story that COVID-19 was deliberately or accidentally created in a lab, and 8 in 10 had heard “a little,” the report says. Overall, their awareness of this bogus idea was higher than for any other group.
One-third of these people—36%—said they believed the virus came from a lab, and 27% said they weren’t sure. Thirty-five percent said the virus came about naturally.
The most comparable group for believing the misinformation about the virus’s origins was, again, the group that gets most of its news from local TV. Within this group, 32% said the virus originated, by mistake or on purpose, in a lab.
Users mainly of social media also had heard more than any others about two unproven theories: that vitamin C can be a protection against the virus and that the latest 5G mobile phone technology somehow is linked to the virus.
While the Americans who rely on social media as their primary news source were the most likely to both hear and believe fake news, they were the least likely (except for the local TV group) to worry that misinformation could impact the election, with only 37% saying they were very concerned about such an eventuality.
Kiely says that while the trend toward social media as a major news pathway is sure to accelerate, it’s a development that is neither good nor bad on its own. But, he adds, Americans need to better learn—and schools need to teach—media literacy.
“People should understand how news operates—what reputable news organizations do in terms of disclosing their funding, disclosing their financial ties, disclosing their staff biographies,” Kiely says. “So much of the misinformation that floats on social media is not attributed to anybody.”
Tom Infield is a longtime Philadelphia journalist and frequent contributor to Trust.
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