Using social media for news: the latest Pew update

Bryan Alexander
4 min readJan 16, 2021

How do people use social media?

It turns out, a lot of Americans turn to these platforms for news. The invaluable Pew Research Center just updated us on their latest findings, and the results should be very useful for anyone thinking about digital news or media in general.

To begin with, Pew found a lot of people find news content across social media. “About half (53%) [of U.S. adults] say they get news from social media…” And yet at the same time more than half of that population don’t trust the stuff: “six-in-ten (59%) of those who at least rarely get news on social media say they expect that news to be largely inaccurate…”

Which platforms do we prefer? Here’s the breakdown:

More than one third of Americans turn to Facebook for news, which is a big chunk of the population. Around one fourth fire up YouTube for this purpose. Following those is Twitter, then smaller and smaller numbers for the rest.

(There’s an interesting twist to this point: “These lower percentages for news use are in some cases related to the fact that fewer Americans report using them at all, compared with the shares who use Facebook and YouTube.”)

Next, authors Amy Mitchell and Elisa Shearer slice the results by demographics, and I found these results utterly fascinating. Take a minute to work through this:

The gender breakdowns are very clear at times, with women massively preferring Facebook and Instagram compared with men, and the reverse for Reddit.

Age reveals the persistent truth in the much derided age and tech correlation — i.e.., across the board, folks over 50 and especially beyond 65 are still less likely to use these technologies, at least for the purpose of finding news. Note, too, the preference of Reddit, Twitter, and Instagram among the under 30s.

Increased education seems to drive Twitter, Reddit, and above all LinkedIn news hounding. Lower amounts of education point users towards Facebook and YouTube. I am very curious how this distinction maps onto which social media platforms higher education teaches.

Racial differences are also interesting. Among people of color, Black and Hispanic populations prefer Instagram, while LinkedIn leads for Asians. White people tend towards Facebook and Reddit, with a sharp dropoff for Instagram.

Political parties are intriguing, with Democrats simply more likely than Republicans to use social media for use across all platforms. The gap is most clear with Reddit, yet also very visible with Instagram and Twitter.

What can we take away from this?

To begin with, there are practical lessons for academic communication. To the extent a college or university is concerned with its population’s news diet, the Pew findings come in very handy. If a campus wants to reach out to specific populations under the aegis of news, it now has helpful targeting information. And campuses seeking to trace how they are talked about can similarly prioritize.

I wonder how this impacts information and digital literacy programs. Should it nudge instructors to foreground certain social media platforms for extra attention?

Will the increasing social divide by educational attainment continue to play out through our social media news gathering habits? That is, will we see low information voters (for example) sticking to YouTube, while those with graduate degrees hew to LinkedIn and Twitter, creating another pair of information bubbles?

I do wonder as well about the differences by race. Is Instagram the closest thing we have to a common space in this topic? Conversely, will Reddit and Facebook become the digital news equivalent of white flight suburbs?

Naturally I would like to see more data and analysis. I’d love to see more about use behavior — how they use social media (following hashtags? making lists?), how often they make or share content versus sucking it down. Jon Lebkowsky told me he wanted to learn if people obtained news from social media content, or from professional news media publishing through social media. And I wonder about platforms missing from this report, namely blogs.

On a personal level, I find some of this strange. I do not look for news on YouTube, LinkedIn, or Instagram. I do get some slices of information from a couple of Reddit boards. On the other hand, I follow gender and education (yet not age) in using Twitter for some news. And I apparently fly in the face of my gender, age, and education in using several good Facebook groups for some bits of news. As you might suspect from the previous paragraph, I get much more news from my RSS reader.

What do you think of the Mitchell and Shearer report? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

(cross-posted to my blog)



Bryan Alexander

Futurist, speaker, writer, educator. Author of the FTTE report, UNIVERSITIES ON FIRE, and ACADEMIA NEXT. Creator of The Future Trends Forum.