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Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Who Gets Their News From Which Social Media Sites?

Though only a third of Instagram users say they get news from the app, 60 percent of those who do are nonwhite, whereas on Twitter, 60 percent of news consumers are white. Of people who rely on Snapchat for news, 63 percent are women. Yet 72 percent of people who tap Reddit for news are men. These are some of the takeaways from a Pew Research survey published this week, looking at the news consumption habits of social media users in the US.

Roughly two-thirds of respondents (68 percent) said they get news from social media at least sometimes. And a majority of them (57 percent) say they expect that news to be “largely inaccurate.” Republicans are far more skeptical of news they see on social media, while nonwhites and people under the age of 29 are the most trusting groups of social media news readers.

The survey, conducted between July 30 and August 12, is based on answers from 4,581 US adults who are part of Pew's nationally representative American Trends Panel. Led by analysts Elisa Shearer and Katerina Eva Matsa, the survey first asked people how they consume news: cable or local TV, print newspapers or magazine, online websites, or social media. The survey then drilled down into the habits and demographics of social media news consumers. It offers unusual insight into how social media news consumption varies by platform according to age, political affiliation, gender, education level, and race.

Only a third of people who use Instagram told Pew they get news from the site, but two-thirds of that group are nonwhite—the highest proportion of nonwhite news consumers of any social media site. At Snapchat, another site that prominently features images, 55 percent of news consumers are nonwhite. Contrast that with Twitter: Twitter is the third-most-popular social media site for news; 71 percent of people who use Twitter get news from the site, and 60 percent of those Twitter news readers are white. That’s an important stat to bear in mind when observing the news cycle feedback loop of Twitter. What happens on Twitter becomes news that journalists report on, and then gets shared on Twitter for people to read and react to.

WIRED was intrigued by the differences among the platforms that white and nonwhite people use for news consumption, and we asked Shearer and Pew’s director of journalism research, Amy Mitchell, to probe more deeply. They examined how often people find news on social media and how much they trust that information, and they found that the answers differ significantly by race, even when controlling for education level and age.

Though roughly the same proportion of white and nonwhite social media users say they “ever” get news from social media (66 percent white, 74 percent of nonwhite respondents), the answers diverge among those who get news from social media frequently.

“Black and Hispanics are more likely to respond and say they ‘often’ get news from social media sites,” says Shearer. “The intensity seems to be higher among nonwhite populations.” In fact, according to data that Shearer sent WIRED, which was based on the same survey but not previously published, only around a sixth (15 percent) of white social media news consumers say they seek out news on social often, versus a third (29 percent) of nonwhites. This is in line, Shearer notes, with previous research that suggests nonwhite people have a higher positive impression of social media overall than white people.

Social media users' views of the accuracy of news accounts also vary by race. Nearly two-thirds of white social media news consumers (62 percent) expect the news they get online to be “largely inaccurate.” Conversely, just over half (51 percent) of nonwhite social media news consumers expect the news they’re reading to be largely accurate. In other words, nonwhites are more likely to get news from social media, and more likely to think it is accurate.

Age is also a factor when it comes to trusting news found on social media, according to the unpublished data Pew shared with WIRED: 47 percent of social media news hounds between the ages of 18 and 29 think most news they see on social is accurate, whereas 60 percent of social media news consumers over the age of 65 expect it to be mostly untrue.

People told Pew that though they are worried about misinformation in the news they get on social media, they continue to rely on those sites because it’s convenient. Roughly a third (36 percent) of people said social media news actually helped them understand current events better, while approximately a sixth (15 percent) said it actively hindered their understanding.

At first blush, that revelation sounds alarming. A majority of people know news found on social media can be inaccurate but rely on it anyway? But the survey doesn’t delve into how people behave based on that knowledge, or whether concern about inaccuracy is a byproduct of the fact that most news on social media is consumed passively. “Perhaps the follow-up question would be, how do they respond to that content differently,” says Mitchell.

Additionally, it’s worth noting that the first step in combating misinformation online is recognizing that it’s a risk at all.

The survey also confirms what we’ve known for a long time about which social media sites have news delivery at the core of their services. Facebook is by far the most common social media “news gateway” in the US, with nearly half of respondents saying they rely on the site for news. YouTube came in second (21 percent) and Twitter a distant third, with 12 percent of respondents saying they use that site for news. Twitter’s standing is no surprise, given its much smaller user base than Facebook or YouTube. Those two networks have been jockeying for the most popular social media site in the US, but Twitter is fifth, according to a different Pew survey from January of this year.

Reddit, Twitter, and Facebook have the largest proportion of users whom Pew describes as “news focused,” meaning they get a lot of news from those sites. Reddit tops the list, with 73 percent of its users saying they get news from the site, up 5 percentage points from last year. One site that had wanted to discourage news—Facebook, which announced in January that it would decrease news reach and focus its algorithm on so-called family and friend content—saw only a small decline.

People are going to get their news however they feel most comfortable—and that’s different across social strata.

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