Expert Commentary

Social media sharing, news and opinion leadership: Recent research

2015 review of recent research on how influential recommendations from friends on social networks can be in terms of trusting news outlets and guiding future information-seeking choices.

Although social media channels have not yet become the primary way that the public at large accesses news, many recent reports and studies confirm that social networks are fast becoming a major part of news distribution and engagement.

The opportunities are substantial, despite the fact that social media companies are increasingly asking customers to pay to reach large audiences. In a June 2015 report, the firm SocialFlow analyzed 8 million posts shared by its clients — which include many media companies — and concluded that these posts had generated 116 billion impressions and billions of additional engagements or interactions with content. SocialFlow, which uses algorithms to optimize the reach of content, notes that the dynamics of these networks, particularly with respect to Facebook, have changed fairly dramatically over the past 18 months. This has benefited many media companies, even as it has made life more difficult for marketers of other products: Indeed, many media companies have seen their reach for average posts increase two-fold over that period, “revealing that Facebook is not only allocating more reach to each post, but growing overall reach for media companies as well.”

Still, the potential disadvantages of audiences encountering their news primarily through social channels are also significant. The Pew Research Center has noted that website visitors who come through social media channels often spend much less time with stories, and that audiences tend to have lower levels of trust in content they discover through social media. Scholars have also been studying variables, such as the recency of information, that may affect perceptions of credibility for information shared on social networks.

A 2015 study published in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication“News Recommendations from Social Media Opinion Leaders: Effects on Media Trust and Information Seeking,” analyzes the results of an experiment in which several hundred college students gave permission for researchers to examine their Facebook accounts and to see their responses to various story types.  The researchers — Jason Turcotte of California State Polytechnic University, Chance York of Kent State, and Jacob Irving, Rosanne M. Scholl and Raymond J. Pingree of Louisiana State — constructed the experiment in such a way that a treatment group saw a news story recommended from a real friend of theirs, while a control group saw the same story, but without an associated social recommendation. The researchers in the study also asked subjects to evaluate the real-life friend selected to make the news recommendation in terms of his or her knowledge and trustworthiness. The news came from a local news outlet on a local topic. The study joins a long-running debate among scholars about the operation of opinion leadership, the filtering of information through networks, and how dynamics may be changing in a digital age.

The study’s findings include:

  • The social cues in the experiment had a strong impact on subjects’ views on a particular news outlet: “Social recommendations from people perceived as quality opinion leaders led to an increase in outlet trust. Alternatively, social recommendations from people perceived as poor opinion leaders decreased the reader’s outlet trust.”
  • The data also suggested that such recommendations may generate new habits: “Receiving a cue from a strong opinion leader increased attitudes related to future information-seeking behavior. The opposite effect was found among readers who received a cue from a person perceived as a poor opinion leader.”
  • The impact of this powerful social-recommendation phenomenon may have wide-reaching consequences: “Socializing news habits have direct implications for improving not only public trust in the news but democratically desirable behaviors. This research also reinforces the importance of opinion leadership in the new media environment; those perceived as high on opinion leadership amplify the effect of increasing intention to follow future news covered by the traditional media outlet. In other words, both news professionals and opinion leaders shoulder the burden of informing and educating the public in the age of digital journalism.”

“The finding that news shared by a friend on Facebook is perceived as more trustworthy than stories received directly from the media outlet may inform how news organization elect to grapple with increasingly inattentive news audiences in the age of digital and social media,” the study’s authors conclude. “Thus, understanding the effects of social recommendations on Facebook, assessments of news trust in particular, gives insights into how the 1.26 billion Facebook users interact with news organizations and one another.”

Keywords: news media, social media, Facebook, Twitter

About The Author