Facebook and feeling informed: A proxy for news?

 
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The issue: Over 1.7 billion people use Facebook on a regular basis, according to the social networking behemoth. Many, especially younger people, read news there — or at least glance over headlines. In 2015, the Pew Research Center found 63 percent of Facebook users see it as a news source; that figure jumps to 74 percent among 18- to 34-year-olds.

But does browsing an endless stream of news headlines posted on your Facebook feed make you informed? Or just offer you the perception that you are informed?

It’s a question worth asking because Facebook does not post whole articles, only teasers.

An academic study worth reading: “Appetizer or Main Dish? Explaining the Use of Facebook News Posts as a Substitute for other News Sources,” published in Computers in Human Behavior, 2016.

Study summary: Philipp Muller, Pascal Schneiders and Svenja Schafer, all of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz in Germany, were curious about whether people feel well informed by what they read on Facebook and thus stop looking at other news sources. The authors build on earlier research that has found highly educated individuals seem to gain knowledge about civic issues from Facebook.

The authors used an emailed online survey of adult internet users in Germany in 2015 to collect information from 390 Facebook users. Respondents were asked how often they use Facebook, how informed they feel by Facebook, how many posts they see on current affairs and how many of those posts have links they click. The authors asked questions to determine how much respondents use Facebook as a substitute for other news sources, such as newspapers. And they tried to measure something called the “need for cognition” (NfC), which represents a person’s inclination to think hard and deeply about complex topics.

The authors hypothesize that people with a high NfC are less susceptible to seeing Facebook as a substitute for other news sources, and less likely to feel informed by Facebook.

Findings:

  • Users with a high NfC are likely to feel they are not getting their information fix from Facebook.
  • Facebook users who feel well informed by the platform and switch away from other news sources are likely to have a low NfC.
  • For Facebook users who think the platform makes them well informed, of little import is the number of posts they read or links they open. “Individuals seem to interpret the mere presence of news posts within their news feed and their own exposure to this feed as an indicator for their own high news knowledge — regardless of whether they actually read and process the news they encounter.”
  • That “illusion of knowledge” could lead to large groups of people feeling informed about an issue when they are not.
  • The findings have implications for traditional news media: When a user with a low NfC sees news posts on Facebook and then feels informed, he or she is less likely to turn to newspapers or television news.

Helpful resources:

Facebook publishes some user statistics in its quarterly reports to shareholders as well as on this statistics page.

A 2016 study by the Pew Research Center indicates that a growing number of people get their information about political candidates from the candidates’ social media profiles.

Other research:

 

Keywords: Social media, Facebook, news consumption, mainstream media, platforms

Last updated: September 29, 2016

 

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Citation: Muller, Philipp; Schneiders, Pascal; Schafer, Svenja. “Appetizer or Main Dish? Explaining the Use of Facebook News Posts as a Substitute for Other News Sources,” Computers in Human Behavior, 2016. doi: 10.1016/j.chb.2016.09.003.