Study: People view information on Twitter as less credible than on news websites

ReadWriteWeb | Communication Quarterly | The Wall

Twitter may have a credibility problem, according to new research results published in the journal Communication Quarterly. Experiments gave readers news in three different forms: A tweet from @nytimes and a short or longer story on The content was the same, but readers found the tweets less credible and less important.

The New York Times website received higher average scores (on a 1-7 scale) for credibility and importance than messages on the Times' Twitter account.

Though the study by Penn State communications professor Mike Schmierbach and marketing strategist Anne Oeldorf-Hirsch was conducted prior to The New York Times introducing its paywall, its discussion raises questions about whether the social media access around that paywall "might prompt more people to initially encounter stories in those ways, even if they are not primarily users of those media." That encounter could be less positive for the Times than a direct visit to the website, according to the researchers:

At an applied level, this study suggests the need for caution in the use of Twitter as a way to distribute news. Despite the official New York Times ‘‘stamp,’’ these stories were still viewed in a more negative light when posted to Twitter. Participants even saw the larger news organization as less credible. It would be premature to say that using Twitter is necessarily hurting The New York Times, but absent evidence showing a positive effect, skepticism seems warranted. The recent move by The New York Times to promote subscriptions appears mixed, from this perspective; however, because it came after this study was conducted, we cannot offer direct empirical insights on this point. The newspaper may be cultivating a more engaged, trusting set of core users, but it may also be increasing the chance that non-subscribers will come away with a negative impression of content if they encounter it through Twitter or some other means. At the very least, news organizations and others (such as corporations) should pay attention to continued research in this area and not reflexively embrace all new distribution technologies as equally beneficial.

The researchers note that the sample set of users may not reflect all Twitter users. It's possible, they say, that "those with the greatest trust in Twitter gravitated toward it first, and later users will remain
skeptical." It's also possible that greater familiarity with Twitter leads to increased skepticism about the accuracy of information shared there.

Researchers showed one of three versions of the same story to 225 people recruited through a university in the northeast. A little over 70 percent of the participants were students at that school. There were more women (64 percent) than men and the participants were young (median age of 25). A little more than a quarter of the participants were Twitter users.

Readers were shown one of three versions of the same story about health care. One was a tweet, like the one shown top left; one was short, like the one top right. The third was about four paragraphs long.

The study's authors conclude that the data "offers good reason to question the credibility of media messages distributed by Twitter." And while "it would be premature to suggest that content shared this way suffers from a major credibility problem," the results suggest that "even somewhat regular users of Twitter do not see it as providing more credible information, and the population as a whole is unusually skeptical of Twitter relative to other means of distribution."

Earlier: Study says the most credible tweets come from people we trust, follow (Poynter) || Related: Twitter is most prominent social network profile in journalists’ search results (Search Engine Watch).

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    Jeff Sonderman

    Jeff Sonderman is the deputy director of the American Press Institute, helping to lead its use of research, tools, events, and strategic insights to advance and sustain journalism.


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