Who should we blame for unexpected political earthquakes? Is it Russian bots, fake news factories or social media algorithms? Perhaps a more worrying problem is the people who are turning away from mainstream news, burying their heads in the sand and living in the hope that, as one nineteen-year-old computer student observed: “anything that is incredibly relevant and happening will usually end up filtering its way to the top of YouTube.”
The tendency to avoid the news is not new. American academic Markus Prior, researched the impact of cable television on participation in US politics and found that the greater the increase in choice, the greater the chance that some people simply choose entertainment over news while others, who he called “news junkies”, choose to watch much more news.
This could all even out over the water-cooler as the news junkies, chatting to their news-avoider mates, pass on anything: “incredibly relevant or happening”. But there is a small problem says Prior: “news junkies are much more partisan — they identify strongly with a party — while entertainment fans don’t care very much about politics and don’t have strong opinions”. When news is passed on by people with very strong opinions, it tends to leave out any opposing ideas, so that means that people without strong opinions are increasingly getting their news from highly partisan sources: their friends.
In a new book out this week, called Misunderstanding News Audiences: Seven Myths of the Social Media Era, the work started in the cable era is brought up to date. The book looks closely at a wide range of research about the way the Internet and social media have affected the news media landscape across the world and debunks many of the prevailing myths about Internet democracy.
One key factor to keep in mind is that most of Internet research has come from the United States and the US is different. In Europe the gap between news junkies and news avoiders is growing but is far smaller than in the US. In America there tends also to be an education gap. The least educated are also the least likely to be aware of news events. In Denmark and Finland there is no educational effect. The least educated are as likely to know what is happening as their university-educated peers. A small study from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism found also that Americans are very likely to avoid news because it makes them upset or angry. In Denmark people rarely report that news makes them angry or upset.
The difference between the USA and northern Europe may lie partly in regulated, public service, television news, which ensures that relatively non-partisan news is broadcast at peak times. That means that most people who access news are at least seeing a similar version of news events. In the United States partisan Republicans and Democrats rarely access the same version of the news. This deepens polarisation and also creates a news environment that some people find upsettingly hostile. In the UK, with public service broadcasting and highly polarised news publishers, we lie somewhere between Denmark and the United States.
However the number of young people consuming television is declining across Europe and this means that they are less likely than their parents’ generation to bump into public news broadcasts when watching entertainment programmes. Some researchers suggest that there is nothing to worry about because those who use social media are more likely than others to see a variety of news stories from a diversity of sources. Young people use social media, they reason, so they will get their news that way.
This might be reassuring of it was not for the way in which social media algorithms operate to make sure that everything on your news feed is tailored just to you. If you watch TV news you will see the items considered important by the editors of the day. If you get news on YouTube or Facebook and your main interests in life are pop music and celebrities then the chances are that you won’t hear much about events in Ukraine. The sources may well be varied but the subjects may not be. Then if your uncle Gerald is a Ukip supporter, who regularly posts stories from the Daily Mail, Sun and Express, along with memes from Leave.EU, you may get them too. The sources will be diverse but you will never stumble across a story telling you that what you just read is totally made up.
If there is one thing more worrying for democracy than a news avoider, it has to be a news avoider plus a very opinionated friend.
Misunderstanding News Audiences: Seven Myths of the Social Media Era, by Eiri Elvestad and Angela Phillips, is out on Friday 9 March