In these divided times, it’s easy to blame the internet for so much of the partisanship, misinformation, and general noise in our political discourse. But a new study suggests that cynicism about news on social media is one area where we’re mostly on the same page.
The Pew Research Center surveyed over 12,000 adults in the U.S. about how familiar they are with media providing political and election news. One portion of the survey was asked about six social media sites (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, YouTube, and Reddit), how often they get their news from those sites, and how much trust they put in that news.
Incredibly, almost two thirds of adults don’t trust Facebook as a source of news — and the numbers are mirrored on both sides of the aisle, with 59 percent of Democrats (and independents who lean that way) and 62 percent of Republicans (and independents who lean that way) reporting distrust.
The numbers are similarly symmetrical for Twitter (46 percent distrusted by Democratic voters, 51 percent for Republicans) and Instagram (41 and 45 percent, respectively).
On the whole, a whopping 72 percent of people in the survey said they trusted news information on social media sites either “Not too much” (38 percent) or “Not at all” (34 percent).
As for the people who do trust their feeds to be factual: Only 15 percent of people across both sides said they trusted Facebook, 12 percent trusted Twitter, 6 percent trusted Instagram, and a slightly concerning 17 percent trusted what they saw on YouTube.
And it’s also worth noting that for the almost one in five people whose “most common” source of political news was social media (18 percent of the respondents, higher than cable television but lower than news websites or apps), trust in social media was higher. 12 percent said they trust info from those platforms “a lot,” and 34 percent say they trust it “some.”
The survey was conducted between Oct. 29 and Nov. 11 last year, meaning there would have been a slightly higher than usual saturation of political and election-focused news across all media platforms, with special, gubernatorial, local, and other elections taking place on Nov. 5, and plenty of commentators looking ahead to the 2020 election.
Of course, it’s hard to know what kind of “news” the survey respondents are referring to when they’re assessing the many forms of political info constantly whooshing down the algorithmic chum tube into our waiting brains. The “news” on YouTube or Instagram could be links from legitimate news organizations, random shares from family and friends, politicians’ posts, their favorite celebrities or influencers using their platform to discuss the social justice issue of the day, or the Some Dude’s Basement Aggrieved Monologuing Power Hour — and users have varying levels of awareness of how their habits and curation shape what kind of content comes their way.
“Social media” is a blanket term for platforms that host and facilitate the distribution of all kinds of content — and the way each platform handles content that’s misleading or untrue is becoming a third rail for their parent companies’ leadership.
But in the meantime, it’s strangely heartening to see the information free-for-all of the last decade begin to bite those companies in the ass — and even more so given it’s just about the one thing everyone can agree on.