There’s been much debate about the increasing reliance on social media platforms as news and information sources, and how platform algorithms, in particular, can skew how such information is distributed.
But despite these warnings, more and more people are indeed turning to social media for the latest news and updates, as reflected in the latest Pew Research study of how people are staying informed, and where they’re getting their news updates.
As per Pew Research:
“Today, half of US adults get news at least sometimes from social media.”
As you can see in this chart, those figures have remained relatively steady over the past three years - which means that even amid the aforementioned concerns about how social platform algorithms can influence news coverage, people are still increasingly relying on social platforms, in at least some capacity, to stay up to date with the latest news.
In terms of platform specifics, just under a third of US adults regularly get news from Facebook.
“A quarter of US adults regularly get news from YouTube, while smaller shares get news from Twitter (14%), Instagram (13%), TikTok (10%) or Reddit (8%). Fewer Americans regularly get news from LinkedIn (4%), Snapchat (4%), Nextdoor (4%), WhatsApp (3%) or Twitch (1%).”
These figures are largely the same as Pew’s 2021 report on the same, though all the top four platforms, except Facebook, have seen slight increases in how many people get news content from them.
But the big mover, overall, is TikTok:
As you can see in this chart, which looks at the data from a different angle – how many people regularly get news from each app, as opposed to overall usage comparison – TikTok has seen a big rise in people getting news insights from the platform.
Which, in basic growth terms, makes sense. TikTok has gone from 54 million users in January 2018, to over a billion today, so in sheer comparative growth numbers, TikTok’s inevitably going to see an increase in this respect as well.
But that also leads to concerns around how news content is distributed in the app. A recent report suggests that up to one in five news-related clips on TikTok contain misinformation, while there are also lingering questions around how the Chinese Government may be able to influence TikTok’s algorithms and content, with a view, potentially, to quelling anti-China sentiment.
Indeed, a video being circulated online suggests that the CCP has much more influence over TikTok’s parent company ByteDance than TikTok has suggested, with the Chinese version of TikTok, called ‘Douyin’ being used as, essentially, a CCP propaganda vehicle, and a means to influence positive behavior among the youth.
At the same time, TikTok’s algorithm, which is different from the algorithms used in Douyin, is seemingly aimed at encouraging dangerous, disrespectful and harmful behavior among western youth, like risky pranks and salacious dance trends.
The suggestion is that the CCP is, in some way, looking to use TikTok as a means to destabilize western nations, by essentially encouraging negative behaviors. This is at least somewhat backed by research reports, which show that ‘positive energy’ and ‘knowledge sharing’ are among the top trends on Douyin.
The top trends on TikTok? ‘Dance’, ‘Pranks’.
It’s very conspiratorial, and it may well be that these are simply the trends that western users are more likely to engage with. But it is interesting in the context of this report, which suggests that TikTok is increasingly becoming a source of news and information for its predominantly young audience.
The report also underlines the steady decline of television and radio as top news sources.
Which is no surprise - but again, it’s interesting to note the dominance of online platforms, which are generally guided by engagement-based algorithms, as the key sources of news and information.
Given that algorithms look to maximize in-app engagement, and emotional responses, like ‘joy’ and ‘anger’, are the key drivers of such, it seems totally unsurprising that society feels more and more divided, especially in online discourse.
That’s potentially going to get even worse as Meta increasingly looks to insert more and more AI-recommended posts into people’s news feeds, as a means to maximize interaction and response.
With more people relying on social platforms for news, and the platforms looking to feed into that wherever they can, that seems destined to further incentivize more partisan, divisive takes, in order to spark more engagement and reach.
The reliance on social media more broadly as a connection tool leads to trends like this, so it all makes perfect sense. But it still seems largely problematic.
And despite platforms’ various efforts to amplify more reliable news sources, and tackle misinformation, overall, it doesn’t seem like it’s getting much better.