Americans Who Mainly Get Their News on Social Media Are Less Engaged, Less Knowledgeable

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Those who rely on social media for news are less likely to get the facts right about the coronavirus and politics and more likely to hear some unproven claims

The rise of social media has changed the information landscape in myriad ways, including the manner in which many Americans keep up with current events. A new Pew Research Center analysis of five surveys conducted between October 2019 and June 2020 finds that Americans who rely most on social media for political and election news stand apart from other news consumers demographically and in their attention to and knowledge of current events.

As part of the American News Pathways project, the Center has gathered data over the past nine months on how Americans’ most common pathways to political and election news (news websites or apps; social media; local, cable and network TV; radio; and print) connect to what they hear and perceive in the news. Overall, 18% of U.S. adults say social media is their most common pathway to political and election news. That’s lower than the share who use news websites and apps for news (25%), but about on par with the percent who say their primary pathway is cable television (16%) or local television (16%). But how do the characteristics of U.S. adults who rely on social media for political and election news compare with those who rely on the other six pathways?

Key findings from the report among U.S. adults who rely most on social media for political and election news:

  • Demographically, those who get most of their political news on social media tend to be younger and are less likely to be white than those who mainly use other platforms. Those who use social media for news also tend to have lower levels of formal education and less household income than those who turn to other news pathways. (These patterns are likely tied to the young age of this group.)
  • Americans who rely on social media are the least likely to be following news about the 2020 presidential candidates “very closely,” at only 8%, compared with those who turn most to cable TV (37%) and print (33%) who say the same. Only the local television news group, at 11%, has a comparably low share following the election very closely. Indeed, those in the local TV group tend to be closest to the social media group in their lower levels of news engagement and knowledge.
  • Those consumers turning mainly to social media are also the least likely to be following coronavirus news very closely. Only about a quarter (23%) of U.S. adults who rely most on social media for political and election news say they are following news about the COVID-19 pandemic very closely, according to a June survey. Higher shares of every other news group studied say this, including those who get most of their news from cable TV (50%), national network TV (50%), news websites and apps (44%) or local TV (32%).
  • Only about half (48%) of those who mostly get their political news through social media said that they understood “very well” or “somewhat well” what was “happening in the Democratic presidential primaries”; 49% said the same about “the facts and events surrounding the impeachment proceedings.” In late February and early March, every other group expressed higher levels of confidence, including U.S. adults who rely most on local TV: 56% and 58%, respectively, said they understood these stories.
  • Americans who depend on social media have lower political knowledge than most other news consumer groups. Across the nine months of study, respondents were asked 29 different fact-based questions that touched on a variety of topics related to the news, from economics to Donald Trump’s impeachment to the COVID-19 outbreak and more. Across these 29 questions, the average proportion who got each question right is lower among Americans who rely most on social media for political news than those who rely most on other types of news sources, except for local TV.
  • Social media news consumers are more likely than most to report seeing made-up news related to the coronavirus pandemic. Fully 68% of those who rely on social media for political news say they saw at least “some” misinformation about the pandemic. This is slightly outpaced by those turning to news websites and apps (73%) and radio (72%) who say the same.
  • Despite this, U.S. adults relying on social media for political news express less concern about the impact of made-up news. Just over a third of this group (37%) say they are very concerned about the effects of made-up news on the 2020 election, lower than every other group except for those who turn mainly to local TV (at 35%). Those who rely on other platforms express higher levels of concern, including 58% of those who mainly turn to cable TV
  • Alongside lower awareness of current events, these social media news consumers are as aware (and in some cases more aware) of misinformation about COVID-19. For example, roughly eight-in-ten U.S. adults (81%) who get most of their news through social media have heard at least “a little” about the conspiracy theory that powerful people intentionally planned the pandemic, including about a quarter of this group (26%) who have heard “a lot” about it. That is more than among those who turn to any of the other six platforms for their political news.