Modern-day news consumption is heavily impacted by the ubiquity of social media apps. Tweets, Facebook posts, even Instagram captions frequently join the ranks of digital news, and there is no denying that these networks have a strong impact on how we see and process what takes place around us. Heavy reliance on social media, however, is compromising people's ability to discern between authentic and fabricated news, according to the most recent Pew Research Center study.
The study, which spans from October 2019 to June 2020, suggests that young adults in America who heavily relied on social media as their main source of news were less likely to be knowledgeable about COVID-19 and the 2020 presidential election. According to the study, 18 percent (or one in five) American adults said that they get their political news mainly through social media. Demographically, the group tended to be between the ages 18 to 29, had lower levels of education, and came from low-income backgrounds.
Lower engagement, higher cluelessness — Those who said that they primarily relied on news sourcing through social media also were less likely to show engagement with ongoing issues. Of note, the researchers asked participants to answer 29 "fact-based questions" surrounding politics, economics, public health, federal budgetary issues, the central policy positions of both Democratic and Republican parties, and more.
"Across these 29 questions, the average proportion who got each question right is lower among Americans who rely most on social media for political news than those who rely most on other types of news sources, except for local TV," the report found.
Enter hoaxes, fake news, and conspiracies — While scoring lower when it came to possessing accurate knowledge and information about current events, those who turned to social media for news consumption scored higher when it came to being exposed to false or unproven claims online. Of note, and this surprises probably no one, this group was much more likely to be exposed to COVID-19 conspiracy theories and claims around the pandemic, presumably including hoaxes involving Bill Gates, COVID-19 "cures," 5G conspiracies, and more.
Cherry on top — If you thought the social media-reliant segment of the study group expressed concern about fake news, think again. Perhaps the most worrying takeaway from the Pew research is that those who get their news mostly through social media were least likely to be worried about receiving fabricated claims. Only 37 percent of the group expressed apprehension around the matter.
It's worth keeping in mind that the study isn't a complete condemnation of social media. Over the past decade, these networks have facilitated debate and awareness around otherwise neglected issues and causes. But what's clear is that people shouldn't be investing blind faith in the medium.
Hyperconnectivity, bias, remarkably reduced analytical reasoning, mindless hot takes, scarce processing time, and more — all of these factors have the ability to compromise accuracy. And when it comes to issues like national elections and public health, it's no laughing matter.