How people use social media to learn about current events: new research

A growing number of Americans get their news through social media. That’s what the latest Pew Research survey demonstrates.

social-media-and-news_total picture_PewThis is obviously of interest to anyone tracking technology use.  It should be vital for educators, as this describes information habits of our population: students, instructors, staff, and everyone else.

To begin with, the numbers are growing.  Pew actually claims a majority of Americans get news from social media.  This feels like a bit of an exaggeration, given that a chunk of respondents in that majority say they use social media for news “hardly ever”.  If we remove that 18% and stick with people who do this “often” and “sometimes,” we’re left with 44% – not a majority, but still very substantial.

Moreover, those numbers are growing across most platforms.  Given social media’s continued expansion, we should expect its use for news-gathering to reach a real majority shortly.

Which platforms do we use to get news?  Facebook is the leader here, in terms of total American population, followed by Twitter and YouTube:

Facebook is by far the largest social networking site, reaching 67% of U.S. adults. The two-thirds of Facebook users who get news there, then, amount to 44% of the general population. YouTube has the next greatest reach in terms of general usage, at 48% of U.S. adults. But only about a fifth of its users get news there, which amounts to 10% of the adult population. That puts it on par with Twitter, which has a smaller user base (16% of U.S. adults) but a larger portion getting news there.

% of adults who use social media for news

If we consider proportions of users who get their news from social media, a slightly different picture appears.  Facebook continues to loom large, but Reddit takes the lead:

social media news habits by platform

One final point: demographics seem to show familiar patterns.  Let me focus in on two, gender and age:

demographics of social media news consumers

Overall, it seems that men and women get news this way in roughly the same proportions.  There are differences by platform, most notably with women dominating news-gathering on Instagram, and men leading on Reddit.  Note that more women than men get news from Facebook, the leading social media platform.

In terms of age, the usual, often-maligned, yet fairly reliable pattern of youth indicating a greater use of technology continues, with one exception.  Watch the numbers fall from the 18-29-year-old heights to senior lows on Facebook, YouTube (which surprised me), Twitter (very stark: 38 to 3!), Instagram (58 to 2!), and Reddit (59 to 0).  The exception is LinkedIn, with the largest news-hound group being 30-49 years old, followed by the 50-64 crowd.

This reminds me of Bernie Sanders’ observation in a recent TIME magazine interview:

Younger people don’t watch television. They don’t even read the New York Times. But they do get it through social media. We’re able to communicate effectively through social media. We’re not able to communicate effectively with old media. That breaks my heart because I spent my whole damn life fighting for senior citizens and disabled veterans. So what does that mean? The Democratic Party is gonna have to figure out a way to communicate directly with younger people and working families outside of the context of corporate media… [emphasis in original]

In sum, a useful snapshot of how we use social media in 2016.  Are you seeing any echoes of this in your life?

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7 Responses to How people use social media to learn about current events: new research

  1. jmartinmckinney says:

    Good morning Bryan.

    A couple of weeks ago you spoke to the trustees of Schreiner University in Kerrville, TX in a trustee development session. Since I volunteer there and am also a trustee, I was in attendance. Your talk was great – thought-provoking and engaging and gave us a lot of food for thought. Since then I emailed you about a possible presentation to staff at the Kansas University Natural History Museum, where I am on the board of advisors. Perhaps my email went into your Junk file but when you have the time would you please check?

    Thank you.

    Janet >

    Like

  2. VanessaVaile says:

    At 74, I may be an outlier here. I avoid mainstream broadcast news like the plague and read all my news online. Although sometimes a challenge, I make an effort not to use Facebook as a primary news source. I mistrusted the filter bubble from the git-go, long before confirmed or I knew what it was. My primary sources are Google News, Twitter, feeds and email newsletters from an eclectic array of mainstream, niche and alternative news sources. News aggregators can be useful supplements. I have a news habit, inherited and cultivated. Periodically, I have denied it for long chunks of time but always succumb, return ~ inevitable with the rise of the internet….

    Like

  3. Peter Jensen says:

    Bryan,
    My wife Sandy Jensen follows and admires your tech writing.
    I do use cnn.com for news and some reporting. It is much more diverse and easier to check than my social media contacts. Google is also a good fact checker on current events and all that disinformation.

    I’m afraid that some of my Facebook “friends” are “Berning dumpers,” who send me anything anti-Hillary or pro-Bernie without checking the sources or the facts. So, as a college writing teacher of 30 years, I research and point out problems of trolling or lousy sources, factual inaccuracies, and biased opinions. In the course of researching sources, I have learned of many dirty tricks, of disinformation used to hoodwink people who are not skeptical. I am shocked at how easily people are fooled and pass on dirt.

    I have been so surprised by the hatred and stupidity of some of my contacts that I have unfriended them. I consider my social media garden well weeded by now.

    I am also surprised at the bias of so-called “alternative, progressive, news junky bloggers.” Some are as misleading in their own way as the FOX Network.

    Of course, I also enjoy laughing at or exposing Trump with my friends. But, since he is a real threat to our way of life, this banter does nothing but make me laugh. This is at the level of college roommate bullshit sessions, not news.

    Is your experience anything like mine? Perhaps I need some better friends.

    Like

    • Greetings, Peter, and please give brilliant Sandy my best.

      I admire what you do, and am glad for the learning you give your students. You remind me of Howard Rheingold’s recent work, about helping people develop online BS detectors.

      “I am also surprised at the bias of so-called ‘alternative, progressive, news junky bloggers.'” Don’t be. They’re more open about it in some ways. That bias has been there since 1900 in the US, and really earlier.

      You ask “Is your experience anything like mine?” Sort of.
      On Facebook I have a strangely heterogeneous mix of friends. Reactionaries, progressives, monetarists, libertarians, liberals, feminists, anti-PC people, etc. Their feeds present quite a diverse range of interests and political opinions. I find this valuable: as I care about them, and as a snapshot of our time.
      I also cultivate discussions on tricky subjects. That’s because I want to learn more, and maybe because I miss the classroom so damn much.

      On Twitter the mix is varied, but with a different emphasis. My professional work (higher ed, technology, the future) is much more present there. Not so much politics. Like you, I’ve weeded (and sown).

      On the blogosphere… more like Twitter. Most of my feeds are for work, and it’s vital that they be diverse.

      …I could go on, but please tell me if I’m answering your question.

      Like

  4. PolsTalk says:

    Good arguments made here.
    I would love to hear controversial political arguments on my posts:
    slumericanpols.wordpress.com

    Like

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