Efforts of journalists and news organisations to develop a Twitter presence are paying off as people pay more attention to mainstream news outlets than other voices on the platform.
The finding comes from the latest Digital News Report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. Around 2,000 people in 46 countries were surveyed on a range of issues related to news including trust, impartiality and willingness to pay for content.
“We know that many journalists put a lot of effort into cultivating their presence on Twitter and Facebook and to some extent this seems to be paying off,” said the report, which this year looked into who gets most attention on leading social media networks.
Around a third of people reported that when scrolling through Twitter (31%) and Facebook (28%) news from conventional outlets and journalists were most likely to capture their attention – more than news from other sources such as politicians and ordinary people.
But on newer networks such as Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok - which are favoured by younger users - celebrities and influencers were more likely to be favoured as sources of information.
Twitter was also singled out by a quarter (25%) of respondents as the best place to head to for the latest news - more than any other platform. Almost a third of people (32%), while reporting that Facebook was a source of news for them, highlighted that they came across this news incidentally while logged onto the platform for other reasons. This was much higher in the UK where over half (56%) of people said they read news on Facebook while there for other reasons.
Despite Twitter and Facebook’s use for news, the report said that journalists and news outlets had to vie for attention on these platforms.
“Even here, news brands and journalists have to compete with a range of voices that can often be more engaging and strident,” said the report. “For instance, politicians and political activists, who often use social media to bypass mainstream media, receive a significant share of news attention on social networks like Twitter.”
This is particularly pronounced in some markets such as the US, where a quarter (26%) of people who use Twitter for news said that they pay most attention to politicians when looking at news on the network.
As well as competing with politicians and celebrities as sources for news, mainstream media outlets also compete with alternative news sources, with the report noting that people who trust the news less are more likely overall to look for alternative news sources.
When it comes to how important social media is for news, the report found that many people - particularly younger people and those with lower levels of education - continue to use such networks for news. Across 12 countries - including the UK, Ireland, US and Germany - which the report has been tracking since 2014, around two-thirds (66%) of people use at least one social network or messaging app to read, share or discuss news.
The most popular social networks used to access news has, however, changed over time.
While Facebook has declined in popularity, WhatsApp, Instagram, TikTok, and Telegram have continued to attract more news use. In 2021, 32% of people in these 12 countries used Facebook to access news - down from 36% in 2012. The number of people using WhatsApp for news meanwhile has more than doubled since 2016 from 7% to 17%.
The UK largely reflects global trends. Over the past year, Facebook’s popularity in the UK has slightly declined (from 24% to 23%) while the number of people accessing news through Whatsapp doubled from 7% to 14% since 2020.
A newcomer to the app space and one of the fastest growing platforms in the world, Chinese-owned TikTok has seen a significant rise in the number of people using it for news. Although at 3%, the number of people who get their news through the vertical video platform is still small, the platform’s younger user base is a key demographic that publishers have largely been struggling to reach.
“News organisations have also been experimenting with a platform [TikTok] that is skewed towards the ‘hard to reach’ under-25 demographic,” said the report. Among the outlets that have turned to the platform to try and engage younger readers via TikTok are the Washington Post and the BBC.
The report said, however, that: “Newer youth-orientated networks represent a significant challenge for mainstream media. News is largely incidental and the expectations of snappy, visual, and entertaining content do not always come naturally to newsrooms staffed by older
journalists with a focus on traditional formats. As we have seen, experiments are ongoing but tapping into these networks with timely, relevant, and engaging content remains a work in progress.”
While social media was found to be a useful gateway to news, data suggests that the growing popularity of messaging apps have helped misinformation and disinformation to spread.
While trust in news overall has grown, trust in news from search and social has remained broadly stable indicating a growing trust gap in most markets. In the UK, trust in news overall was 36% (up by 8 percentage points on last year) while trust in news from social media is particularly low at 6% compared to for instance Ireland (19%), the US (13%) and India (32%).
When asked which social network concerned them most when it came to spreading Covid-19 misinformation, 35% of people in the UK singled out Facebook - in line with global findings. Messaging apps such as WhatsApp and Telegram meanwhile were more often highlighted in countries in the Global South including Brazil, India and Nigeria. In each of these countries around a third of people singled out WhatsApp as a source of Covid-19 misinformation.
Despite the challenges and complexities for mainstream news outlets and journalists when using social media channels to share news, the report said that these networks remain an important channel.
It said: “Given the time that people spend on social networks – and the dangers of false information and political propaganda – it still seems important that journalists and news organisations find ways to adapt to these more informal spaces, especially if they want to engage people with low interest in news and young people (groups that rarely go directly to news sites or apps), and especially if social media can convince publishers that the platform in question delivers a reasonable return on investment.”