July 30, 2020

Americans who use social media for their news consumption are less likely to follow and understand news about the elections or the coronavirus, according to a new study from Pew Research Center’s American News Pathways project.

Researchers analyzed data from five different surveys conducted from October 2019 to June 2020, each with over 8,000 respondents. They studied the seven most common pathways to election and political news: social media; news websites or apps; local, cable and network TV; radio; and print.

Nearly one in five (18%) of Americans said social media is their most common pathway to political and election news. These individuals skew younger and are less likely to be white.

Only 8% of these social media users said they are following news about the 2020 presidential candidates “very closely.” About a quarter are following news about the pandemic very closely. These statistics are lower than those of any other news group surveyed, though are most similar to local TV news consumers’ averages.

(Courtesy: Pew Research Center’s American News Pathways)

Americans who get news on social media are not only less engaged with the news, but are also less knowledgeable about current events. About half said they understood “very well” or “somewhat well” news about the presidential primaries or the impeachment proceedings, as opposed to 78% of respondents whose main pathway to the news is through cable TV.

Participants were also asked a series of fact-based questions about political issues and, on average, 43% answered correctly. While few social media users chose wrong answers, many (39%) simply said they were unsure of the answer.

(Courtesy: Pew Research Center’s American News Pathways)

“The two groups that were significantly lower — the local TV and social media groups — really stood out,” said senior researcher Baxter Oliphant. “It’s clear how much less factual knowledge they sometimes bring to current events and politics.”

Social media news users were also more likely to see unproven claims about the pandemic and the elections — most notably, the “Plandemic” conspiracy. Perhaps most troubling, they are also more likely to believe misinformation, though fewer social media users are concerned about this as compared to other groups.

“(The data) really shows how different the media landscape is, and can be, for some people’s lives,” Oliphant said. “People that use social media as their most common way to get news are following the news less closely. They know less about the news. They’re getting exposed to some of the fake and inaccurate misinformation. All of that helps shape the election and the world in which we live.”

Eliana Miller is a recent graduate of Bowdoin College. You can reach her on Twitter @ElianaMM23, or via email at news@poynter.org.

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