How social media is changing the way we access news - does it provide accurate information?

Social media holds a host of news platforms - but how does this manipulate the way we access information?

Suman, (who did not want to be fully named), 25, scrolls through Twitter like the rest of us. When she comes across a news link that people she follows share, she’s more inclined to click on it, simply because it’s accessible and is more likely to be of her interest. She says this way “is an easier way to get information from sources you enjoy”, instead of reading a newspaper or website. Hard to argue, really.

Social media has now overtaken traditional channels as sources for news among teens, with Instagram, TikTok and YouTube now their top news sources. With the almost supernatural ability to instantly learn of events occurring around the world, social media now plays the role of messenger - but exactly how has this manipulated the way we access information?

An abundance of news

The BBC, The Guardian, The Independent, Tortoise, Buzzfeed, etc etc all have social media pages. At any given moment, we can twiddle our thumbs and learn of the latest updates on the devastation in Palestine, the protests in Iran, and the shootings in America, whether it’s 2am or 6pm, the news is rolling, all constant, arguably all-consuming entity.

Jess Natale is the creator of so.informed - an Instagram-based news-sharing platform. Her motivation for starting the page stems from wanting to shift the narrative in what content was seen: “I started the So page in February 2020 as a way to break down issues that were being discussed during the primaries. The page was really an effort to get more people engaged in what I felt was a deeply important election. I chose Instagram as the platform because I felt that I wasn’t seeing that kind of content on that platform and wanted to attempt to shift the narrative.”

She told NationalWorld young people are more inclined to use social media for news, saying: “I think people -- particularly young people -- utilise social media to consume information because there is simply so much to take in all the time. When pages like the So page simplify information so it’s palatable, it’s easier to take in the constant influx of news. TikTok is also great in the way that creators simplify the news via video.”

And she’s completely right. A recent report from Ofcom found TikTok’s reach for news increased 6 percentage points within two years, from 1% in 2020 to 7% in 2022, with social media overtaking traditional channels for news among teens.

Suman, (and myself, 25) in all honesty, also prefer getting our news from sources we actively follow on social media. Suman says: “It’s accessible and you can get headlines from papers you enjoy reading from, without needing to trawl through websites or actual papers.”

How social media is reinventing the news landscape

Dr Patrick Kraft is one of the authors of the research paper ‘Social Media and the Changing Information Environment: Sentiment Differences in Read Versus Recirculated News Content’. The paper focuses on what type of news people are more inclined to share, finding that social status and self-presentation encourage people to gatekeep negativity - and more positive news is shared via email, than Twitter and Facebook.

When asked his thoughts on if social media is changing the way we access information, he said: “Hard question to answer since there are so many ways our information exposure is changing (both for the better and for worse).

“On the one hand, social media has the potential to provide us with a wealth of information that we would otherwise have no access to or never find ourselves. On other hand, this supply of information is ultimately driven by algorithms that are tuned to increase user engagement. Unfortunately, it turns out that the best way to maximise engagement is not necessarily by providing balanced (or accurate) information.”

However, this paper was published before the Covid-19 lockdowns - so would that have a part to play in how news is now distributed?

Dr Kraft said: “My guess would be that articles related to Covid-19 were shared a lot more across all platforms and channels, especially at the outset of the pandemic. Given how polarised this issue has become, such as mask wearing, it is very likely that there is a partisan bias in the types of articles being shared - including misinformation content. Unfortunately, I have not collected the necessary data to explore this question further.”

Why turn to social media?

So why have people turned to social media for their news?

The Ofcom report says: “Users of TikTok for news get more of their news on TikTok from ‘other people they follow’ than ‘news organisations’.

“Social media platforms continue to score relatively poorly on attributes, such as ‘trust’, but most do perform better on ‘offers a range of opinions’. Although not as trusted as other platforms, around a third of users of social media sites do trust them for news.”

Suman agrees with the Ofcom report, noting that she does recognise getting news solely from social media can “definitely not be impartial, and can be a biased source as it’s what you’re interested in, which might not be reflective of the whole story”.

Yet, is it simply because we’re always on our phones, and it’s easier to come across the news - rather than actively hunt articles down, that we turn to social media for our information?

Ms Natale said: “Social media is definitely a great jumping off point to learn about issues. In regards to the uprising in Iran, social media has been a powerful tool to share information that mainstream news sites are not necessarily covering. Social media allows for voices to be heard directly versus second-hand information we generally find from reporting in larger sources.

“I think it’s a growing trend we will continue to see - particularly as people find themselves feeling more and more burnt out by the constant news cycle.”