Stop the hysterics. Nobody gets their news from Facebook.

Out of the myriad problems with social media, it is deeply misleading to suggest they have outsized influence with the news-reading public.

Two-thirds of Americans report seeing the news on social media at least occasionally but nobody actually gets their news from Facebook. They get it through social media but they are still reading their news from the same sources they have for a long time; traditional TV and newspaper journalists. Clicking a Facebook link to read a story from your local newspaper is no different than when there used to be one copy of the local paper at the breakroom at work that was shared by everyone – but nobody would be daft enough to say they got their news from their employer.

Most of the news the public consumes comes from traditional media. Even as an industry teetering in existential crisis, print media still rules the information landscape. You may have watched the Harvey Weinstein story on ABC or read about it on mytotallynotpartisanblog.com but the initial reporting came from The New Yorker magazine. From Watergate to #MeToo to WMDs, the big stories usually come from a newspaper. After that come radio and broadcast journalists and then online only outlets, including blogs, podcasts, and YouTube channels. That’s where your news comes from. And pretty much every single one of those papers, magazines, radio shows, news programs, websites, channels, and podcasts has a presence on at least one social media platform. Journalists consistently rank among the most followed accounts on Twitter and in March of 2018 CNN’s Facebook page was the most engaged on the entire site.

Even if you first saw the story on social media, it still originated in traditional media, probably a newspaper.

A 2010 Pew Research study suggested that while journalism had obviously grown into new mediums, the vast majority of reported facts, on whatever platform the consumer experiences them, were first reported in the “old” media. This has been the reality of news coverage for decades: the best coverage comes from institutions with the resources (staffing, expertise, insurance, money, informants, etc.) to really dig into a subject, particularly newspapers. TV has long relied on initial reporting from newspapers and social media is no different. Over the last ten years, over 150 individuals and publications have been awarded a Pulitzer in news reporting, commentary, criticism, and editorials. Only four went to online-only publications.

Many, many millions of people, the majority of news-consumers in fact, get some of their news through Facebook, YouTube, or Twitter. But they don’t get their news from those platforms. They get it largely from the same media organizations and personalities they traditionally have. Is there really a difference in watching a Rachel Maddow segment on MSNBC and clicking a link to that segment on Twitter?

The social media as a news source narrative is further wrinkled by research suggesting that, while the majority of Americans does get some of their news on social media, only 28% report regularly getting their news from social media.

There are still more complications and caveats for social media news. According to a national study released last month, over 60% of people say that the social media companies have too much control over the news they see and that this results in a “worse mix of news” for consumers. Although there is a partisan divide on this question – Republican and Republican leaning respondents were 20% more likely than Democrats and Democrat leaning ones to say the social media platforms had too much influence over their news feeds – clear majorities of both partisan sides agreed with the premise.

Compounding this lack of trust in the social media platforms, is a nearly as strong belief that the news they find there is itself untrustworthy. 57% of people expect the news they see on social media to be “largely inaccurate.” Here, too, there is a stark partisan difference, with over 70% of Republicans agreeing and just under half of Democrats. This is largely attributable to a pervasive belief among the Right that there is a systemic liberal, or at least anti-conservative, bias among the staff and executives of the social media companies.

There is also the fact that for the last three years, after promising to clean up their News Feed algorithms, the rate at which Facebook has been directing news traffic to their users has declined precipitously. Facebook accounts for over half of all social media news consumption so any change in their traffic will have a large effect.

There is one glaring outlier, one group that not only gets the majority of their news online and directly from social media, they may portend a larger cultural shift among the majority. In large measure due to their greater use of smartphones, young people do in fact depend on social media to be informed. A recent study by SurveyMonkey and the education nonprofit Common Sense suggested that the majority of American teens not only get their news online but that over half of Americans between 13 and 17 years old really do get their news from social influencers and online personalities and not from traditional outlets.

This is partly due to the affinity of Generation Z (those born after the mid-90s and currently between 18-24) for using smartphone apps, including aggregator services like Apple News or Flipboard which allow users to fill those unbusy minutes by scrolling through headlines. Fully one-half of Gen Z social media news consumers get their information through YouTube. Half of all that do, allow their news to be directed at them through the recommendations sidebar or “watch next” autoplay.

The bottom line is that while social media obviously plays an important role in directing news consumption it would be difficult to assert that it is a central, or even a particularly influential one. One could argue that as podcasts and YouTube channels grow among non-Gen Z news consumers that this will reverse. The case could be made that as online personalities, like The Young Turks or Steven Crowder, become more relevant in driving culture and politics that they will attract greater numbers, further depressing the audience numbers for traditional media and steering news-hounds to YouTube and Twitter for the most up-to-date and indepth reporting available. With far greater convenience to the user. If trends continue, it seems likely that Gen Z will help to change the media landscape. But the claim that social media is somehow in charge of our media diet is, for now, wholly unsubstantiated.

Thomas Brown is a history teacher and recovering political consultant hiding out in the American South. He is also managing editor of The Swamp and has been published in The Bipartisan PressAlaska Native NewsGENHuman EventsTimes of IsraelDialogue & DiscourseFollow him at his Medium page and argue with him on Twitter: @reallythistoo.

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Categories: Media, Social Media, Technology, The Swamp

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