Social media grows as primary news source

May 26, 2016, 3:15 PM EDT
(Source: Maryland GovPics/flickr)
(Source: Maryland GovPics/flickr)

In light of the controversy over Facebook’s alleged suppression of conservative news from its "trending topics" section, it is particularly concerning to learn that 62% of U.S. adults get their news on social media, according to Pew Research.

Pew conducts an ongoing study of social media and news, examining how people consume news across various social networking sites. The 62% figure is based on a survey conducted earlier this year with 4,654 members of Pew Research Center’s American Trends Panel. 

Of the 62%, 18% get their news from social media often, 26% sometimes, and 18% hardly ever. 

Compare this to 2012 when Pew asked a similar question in a survey and found that 49% of U.S. adults reported seeing news on social media.

The various social networking sites are crucial to consider here as well, given the different ways they disseminate news. 66% of Facebook users get news on that site, 59% of Twitter users get news on Twitter, and 70% of Reddit users get news on that platform.

The Reddit figures are a useful window into the news cycle on social media; many viral internet memes or other items start on Reddit and end up on Facebook or Twitter. Pew noted that 45% of Reddit users learn about the 2016 presidential campaign in a given week from that site. The difference between Reddit and the other two news giants of the social media world — Facebook and Twitter — is that just 4% of U.S. adults use Reddit. That means that Twitter and Facebook are gleaning huge chunks of the news-reading adult population.

While it’s not a complete surprise that the number of adults using social media to read news is high, and has grown increasingly so over the last few years, it seems more important than ever to consider how social media portrays news, and what users take for fact. With political figures like Donald Trump leading headlines  — this presidential candidate both vilifies the media and uses it to pander to his votership — social media can become the platform for a blurring of lines between journalistically-sound content and opinion. Indeed, Trump’s command of social media sent Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly into hiding last year after his Twitter followers engaged in a blistering onslaught of verbal assault and threats against her, believing that she had treated him unfairly on live TV. 

Couple social media’s viral nature and pervasive use with Facebook’s alleged suppression of certain news items and it’s a dangerous mix for that 62%. Who can know if they are getting all (or any) of the facts? As the print world continues its painful, protracted death, social media’s rise to the front pages is both expected and worrisome.