According to a 2021 survey by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, 42% of Americans say they use social media as a source of news. (A separate survey by the Pew Research Center pegged that figure at 53%.) Additionally, 31% of Americans surveyed by the Reuters Institute reported sharing news through social media, messaging apps, or e-mail. Those numbers have grown considerably since 2013, when 27% of the population reported using social media as a source of news. These increases have occurred despite the fact that most Americans claim they have much lower levels of trust in the news they encounter on social media (especially when compared to traditional media, such as local TV news).
The rise of news consumption on social media has had a major economic impact on the journalism industry and has had broader impacts on audiences’ knowledge about public affairs. In considering such impacts, it is important to remember that social media is just a tool — one that is capable of advancing both positive and negative developments. Some undesirable changes to journalism and society are directly attributable to the rise of social media, such as changes to the technical infrastructures that govern the flows of information. However, many undesirable changes attributed to the rise of social media are actually symptomatic of other developments within society, such as the devaluing of expertise and declining trust in institutions.
Nevertheless, it is evident that journalists and journalistic outlets today must contend with news consumption and distribution patterns that are configured in no small part by social media.
According to a 2020 survey by the Pew Research Center, 74% of U.S. adults use YouTube, 68% use Facebook, 40% use Instagram, 25% use Twitter, and 15% use Reddit. Many of their users regularly consume news on those platforms — in the cases of Facebook and Reddit, more than half of users reported regularly getting news on those platforms. Social media are thus crucial platforms for linking news producers with news consumers.
However, researchers have also found that relying on social media as a dominant source of news can have a negative influence on one’s knowledge and media literacy. For example, the Pew Research Center found that people who received their political news primarily from social media had lower levels of knowledge about COVID-19 and were more likely to be exposed to false information. This is particularly concerning as Pew also found, in a separate study, that nearly half of Americans said they were getting at least some news or information about COVID-19 vaccines from social media.
The apparent paradox imbued in the fact that large numbers of people get news from social media even as they find it to be an untrustworthy source of information has also led to a shift in attitudes toward the governance of news information flows. According to a 2021 survey by the Pew Research Center, nearly half of U.S. adults said that the government should restrict false information online, even if it means that people lose some freedom to access or publish content. (There was even greater support for having tech companies serve as the moderators.) This is not a uniquely American attitude. Elsewhere in the world, several authoritative regimes have passed so-called “fake news” laws that grant their governments greater powers to restrict the publishing of information. In many instances, such laws have been used primarily to punish critical journalism.
The partisan divide that complicates news consumption in the United States also appears on social media. In the Pew survey, support for having the U.S. government restrict false information online was sharply divided among partisan lines, with those who self-identify as Democrats being more than twice as likely to support the restriction of false information as Republicans. In a separate study, the Pew Research Center found that 64% of Republicans believed that tech companies prioritize liberal viewpoints while just 28% of Democrats thought so. These beliefs, in turn, impact the extent to which individuals trust the news content they casually encounter on those platforms, especially if that content is not consistent with an individual’s preconceptions.
In order to remain relevant in the information ecosystem, journalistic outlets must seek out audiences where they are. This has resulted in growing platform dependency, a phenomenon wherein journalistic outlets come to depend on platforms like social media (and thus place themselves at their whims) in order to gain exposure to news audiences. When those platforms make changes to their sites, the impacts can be significant — especially for journalistic outlets whose revenue models depend on audience engagement and advertisements.
For example, in 2015, Facebook decided to prioritize videos in the algorithms it uses to curate the personalized News Feed users see on the site. Many journalistic outlets subsequently invested heavily in bolstering their video teams in order to produce more video content. (This is sometimes called the “pivot to video” era.) Those investments sometimes required laying off significant numbers of long-time journalists and editors who were not well-versed in multimedia journalism. Later, however, it was discovered that Facebook dramatically overstated the success of videos posted on its platform. The company soon tweaked the algorithms once more to prioritize other signals instead (e.g., the number of reactions to a post). The journalistic outlets who pivoted toward video were forced to pivot back, firing many of the multimedia producers they had recently hired.
As this example illustrates, the fates of news content, journalists, and journalistic outlets can depend on just a few large, commercial social media platforms. With one tweak of their algorithms, an organization’s content may become largely invisible to the platform’s user base. This becomes especially problematic as more people congregate on fewer, larger platforms (resulting in a network effect, where the value of the platform increases as more people participate on it). The consolidation of massive audiences on those few platforms results in news organizations depending on referrals from those networks.
Platformization, or the rise of platforms as the dominant infrastructural and economic model of the contemporary online environment, also presents a brand problem for journalistic outlets. Researchers have found that users tend to associate the news content they come across with the platform, and not the journalistic outlet. Thus, not only are journalistic outlets losing distributional control, they are also losing recognition.
The sharing of news content is not a new social phenomenon. People have long described the news they heard on the radio or saw on TV to a work colleague over lunch, or even cut out and shared newspaper stories of note with friends and loved ones. However, in the online environment, it is much easier to share news content — often by simply clicking a button, whether on a platform (e.g., “retweet”) or on the story itself (e.g., “share”).
The term spreadable media has been coined to describe how participatory culture accelerates the distribution of media content. Today’s news consumption is often incidental, meaning that people frequently encounter news as part of their constant connection with social media, and not because they were actively looking for news. Put another way, even if their primary intention for accessing social media was to connect with friends, they may encounter a number of news products from different sources along the way. The consequence of this is that news consumption today is increasingly about exercising sociability — and part of that is by sharing content that people find to be interesting or relevant.
Moreover, the proliferation of social media has resulted in a user-centered distribution model. Only a relatively small share of the stories published by The New York Times that users encounter on Facebook originate from the Times’ Facebook page. Instead, the vast majority of those stories — and a large portion of external traffic driven to the Times’ website — comes from users who voluntarily shared the story (often with some commentary). Thus, journalistic outlets are not only becoming increasingly dependent on platforms, they are also becoming more dependent on users who are willing to share the outlet’s work.
There are many reasons why users choose to share. These range from having genuine interest in a story to promoting an identity marker, such as their intellect (e.g., high-brow think pieces) or political ideology (e.g., a story about partisan corruption). In order to get users to serve as willing sharers, journalistic outlets must find ways to appeal to those users. This might include, for example, writing a more provocative headline, including an emotional cover image, or even producing more opinionated content.
Thus, as some scholars have argued, while speed and quality used to be considered the twin pillars of good journalism, sociability has become a third pillar. It is no longer sufficient to be first and comprehensive; now, journalists must also produce journalism in a form that is capable of spreading effectively. Put another way, today’s journalism must be both findable and shareable to succeed in a user-centered distribution model. This means both tweaking news products to optimize shareability (e.g., using salient keywords in the headline) and seeking out key nodes of content distribution (e.g., influencers) to help promote a story after it has been published.
Nearly half of all Americans now consume news on social media, with much of it occurring on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter.
People who consume news primarily through social media tend to have lower levels of knowledge about some issues. There is also growing appetite among Americans for greater moderation of false information on social media.
Journalistic outlets have become increasingly dependent on social media in recent years due to changes in digital infrastructures and news consumption habits.
Audiences now lie at the heart of news distribution, and journalists must be even more attentive than before to the shareability of their products.