Social network sites are becoming essential to how people experience news. The social media feed is made up of a mixture of private and public postings, and news is intertwined with all sorts of activities. What people are exposed to partly depends on the behaviour of their fellow networkers. Drawing on theories of opinion leaders and the concept of incidental news consumption, this article examines news-gathering on social media using a combination of representative survey data and qualitative interviews with young people aged 16–19. Regression analysis of the survey data reveals the primary factor explaining use of news on social media is the habit of using online news services. Interest in news and age also contribute to this phenomenon. The qualitative study reveals that interviewees’ news consumption through social networks is frequent. While incidental, they nonetheless seem to count on being informed through this medium. There is a widespread presence of opinion leaders in the respondents’ social media feeds, bringing attention to news they otherwise would have missed, and just as important, delivering interpretation and context. The study also indicates that these opinion leaders are perceived as central or even crucial to the news-gathering process.
The news environment and news consumption practices are changing rapidly. Society is moving from a traditional news cycle dominated by journalism professionals to a more complex information cycle that incorporates ordinary people within the process. Established news media organisations still produce most of the news consumed today, including that which circulates through social media and aggregators (Domingo, Masip and Costera Meijer 2015). Still, there has been a decrease in use of legacy news media (e.g. newspapers, television and radio) on their traditional platforms. At the same time, social network sites (SNSs) are becoming central to the way people experience news. Indeed, SNSs overall, and particularly conversational networks such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, are an increasingly significant source for news (Mitchell and Page 2015).
This shift towards digital news outlets and SNSs is especially evident among young people in large parts of the Western world (Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research 2015; Kohut et al. 2012; Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2016). For this reason, this latter group’s news consumption habits have been regarded as a challenge for news industries, journalism practice and democracy in total (Elvestad, Blekesaune, and Aalberg 2014).
SNSs facilitate access to news, as well as provide opportunities to engage in the news process, through commenting, sharing and posting online (Holton et al. 2015). What people are exposed to, thus, depends to a great extent on the interest and behaviour of those with whom they connect via this medium (Karlsen 2015; Thorson and Wells 2015). Further, everyday news about current affairs is becoming integrated with all sorts of activities, websites and genres (Bode 2016; Costera Meijer and Kormelink 2014).
One important feature of the above-mentioned shift from a traditional linear news cycle towards a more complex information cycle (Chadwick 2011) is that news can be distributed and picked up by the audience in an incidental way. Articles appear in the content flow without particularly deliberate actions on the side of the user. In SNS feeds, everyday news about current affairs appears because articles are suggested automatically by the networks themselves through algorithms based on previous use, if one “likes” or “follows” media organisations, or because fellow networkers share them.
Another important aspect of this growing trend is the presence of persons who influence others in their news-gathering. Already in the 1950s, Katz and Lazarsfeld (1955) identified the importance of others, so-called opinion leaders, in the distribution of information from media and public sources. This concept fits very well into the overall idea of SNSs building on people passing on information of various kinds. This new dynamic between leaders and followers, however, is relatively unexplored in mediated interpersonal settings (Turcotte et al. 2015).
The aim of the study reported here is to reveal how young people use news in their SNS feeds, whether use is incidental or deliberate, and what role friends and followers in those networks play for news consumption. The study design includes a representative survey of the Swedish population and an in-depth interview study with young adults.
When studying media behaviour, the theory of uses and gratifications (U&G theory) serves as a natural starting point. In the U&G theory, four factors are emphasised when explaining media behaviour: motivational, situational, individual and structural (McQuail 2010; Rubin 2002; Ruggiero 2000; Sullivan 2013). News consumption practices in legacy media have historically proved to follow certain patterns. Regular use forms habits in life, which contribute to everyday structure (Lull 1990; Rubin 2002) and habitual media consumption is strongly related to a person’s life cycle. Individual characteristics such as age, family formation and working situation are of great importance for such habits (Lauf 2001; McQuail 2010). Research has made it evident that age is one of the most important predictive factors concerning the consumption of news through newspapers and other legacy media (Bakker and Sádaba 2010; Bergström and Wadbring 2010; Lauf 2001; Skogerbø and Winsvold 2011; Trilling and Schönbach 2012).
Besides age, social engagement and a general political interest are usually good predictors of news consumption practices, and their explanatory power has increased over time (Putnam 1993; Strömbäck, Djerf-Pierre, and Shehata 2012). There are also positive correlations between socio-economic factors, such as education and income, and news consumption habits; the higher formal education and the higher income, the more frequent use of newspapers and broadcast news (Elvestad and Blekesaune 2008; Ohlsson, Lindell, and Arkhede 2017). However, there is some evidence that news use via SNSs is less well correlated with socio-economic variables than has been seen with legacy media (Shearer and Gottfried 2017).
Social media networks show both similarities and differences, when compared to legacy media. One area where this can be seen is in incidental exposure to the news. People often choose to use the networks for reasons other than pure news consumption. While there, though, they may be exposed to information or news they did not seek out. In this, social media resembles low-control news environments such as television news. The customising feature of SNSs, however, rather makes them a hybrid “somewhere between the extremes of selective exposure and incidental exposure” (Bode 2016, 30).
News organisations have their own presence on SNSs. Further, one’s friends and acquaintances, as well as groups one follows, tend to share links and comment on news. In consequence, a visit to a social media platform with the intention of seeking private/social connection may result in exposure to different sorts of news in one’s feed. In a report on young people’s news consumption (Madden, Lenhart, and Fontaine 2017, 4), the researchers formulate this consumption shift in an astute way: “In an age of smart phones and social media, young people don’t follow the news, as much as it follows them”.
In sum, the concept of incidental news consumption in the SNS context describes how users come across news without having that specific intention to begin with. The news-gathering can be regarded as a by-product of other activities, something occurring with the habitual use of a certain medium, channel or content (Valeriani and Vaccari 2016). News consumption also becomes part of what is referred to as a “checking cycle” (Costera Meijer and Kormelink 2014, 670), in which one constantly checks one’s phone to stay on top of what occurs both in one’s personal life and, as well, the world at large. This phenomenon is not new. However, in the SNS context, where pictures of cats, parties, celebrities and socially oriented updates irregularly but continuously are being mixed up with news stories, the possibility of running into news becomes substantially greater.
Incidental news consumption has proved to be widespread in social media. In an American survey (Purcell et al. 2010), for instance, a majority of news users claim they come across news content in an incidental manner. Online news users also state that incidental news consumption provides information they otherwise would not have received. Some even state that incidental consumption has become a major way of obtaining news (Swart, Peters, and Broersma 2016; Yadamsuren and Erdelez 2010). Young people also claim to get more news using social media than was their primary intent (Hermida et al. 2012). They further report gaining access to more and different sources and viewpoints than before (Sveningsson 2015). Respondents in one study express that they might find something they have not heard about or did not know before, and that they might find something they lacked (Yadamsuren and Erdelez 2010).
The concept of “incidental” merits greater attention relative to what this experience means to young SNS news consumers and the way it affects their news consumption. The present study endeavours to shed more light on this topic.
Social media news distribution also, to a larger extent than legacy media, includes information “shared by known others” (Bode 2016, 26). Originally, information-sharing others were described by Katz and Lazarsfeld (1955) as opinion leaders passing on media messages to other people who were not as frequently exposed to media. It was demonstrated that opinion leaders exerted personal influence over the opinions and attitudes of close others, a process of information-gathering sometimes termed “two-step flow”.
The two-step flow theory and the context of the follower relate to models of news selectivity (Sears and Freedman 1967). The selection of news historically meant selecting a known source. People tuned in to particular news programmes or bought known newspapers. Thus, their news environment depended on habitually consumed media outlets. In the SNS environment, in contrast, one selects a story from a wide range of sources suggested by network algorithms, friends or followers (Messing and Westwood 2014). The tendency, then, is for news to be encountered more generally as a result of incidental exposure or upon recommendations of others known to the user.
The role of opinion leaders in the SNS context has been identified in several studies. It is evident that friends and followers in social networks influence what news is noticed in people’s flows, often under such banners as “liked”, “shared” or “recommended” (Choi 2015; Hermida et al. 2012; Holton et al. 2015; Karlsen 2015; Weeks and Holberg 2013). On Twitter a few individuals, readily trusted and often sought out for guidance and information, were found to markedly influence others’ news consumption (Choi 2015). These so-called “discussion catalysts” are usually the ones initiating a discussion (Himelboim, Gleave, and Smith 2009). A Canadian study (Hogan and Quan-Haase 2010) found it was twice as likely that users preferred news links and recommendations from friends and family, as compared to journalists and news organisations.
Opinion leaders and their interpersonal networks are equally essential in the flow of communication in SNSs (Karlsen 2015). The process of the two-step flow of information and news, however, takes two: a leader and a follower (Katz 1957), but the follower is only briefly characterised in the analyses between Katz and Lazarsfeld. Also, studies of news consumption through social media have focused mainly on distribution, whereas little has been revealed about the relationship between leaders and followers from the perspective of the latter. Greater focus is needed on how news and information are used and interpreted (Hille and Bakker 2013; Karlsen 2015; Turcotte et al. 2015; Weeks and Holberg 2013).
The present study reports on news consumption in young people’s SNS feeds and what factors explain it. With the design of our study, we capture motivational, individual and structural factors, and situational aspects, as outlined in previous U&G research. By combining survey method with in-depth interviews, we not only capture behavioural findings, but also attain a deeper understanding of: (a) the purposes behind young people’s news use; and (b) how they make sense of the news flow in their SNS feeds.
Three research questions constitute the basis for the analysis:
|(1)||To what extent do young people use news that appears in their SNS feeds, and what factors contribute to the understanding of consumption?|
|(2)||To what extent do young people perceive their news consumption on SNSs incidental or deliberate?|
|(3)||What role do opinion leaders play when young people consume news on SNSs?|
Methods and Data
It is fairly common to either gather self-reported frequency data on news consumption or collect in-depth interpretations from a small non-representative sample. However, a design capturing both habits and how young people make sense of their use will work complementarily and broaden the understanding of news consumption in SNSs (Kobbernagel and Schrøder 2016). The present study, therefore, includes both a representative survey and an interview study with young people living in Sweden.
In order to answer the first research question, namely, the level of young people’s news consumption in social media, a survey with a representative sample of the Swedish population was used. In Sweden, since 1986, data are routinely collected in the national Society, Opinion, Media (SOM) survey. Each year between 3,000 and 17,000 persons, aged 16–85 and living in Sweden, receive the SOM mail-in questionnaire. Out of those questioned the response rate was 51 per cent. For the current analysis, responses from persons aged 16–25, from the 2015 survey, were collected, which makes 687 valid respondents for this study (see Vernersdotter 2016 for details on research design). Respondent characteristics, by and large, faithfully reflect the Swedish population in terms of gender, social class and level of education. However, older people are somewhat over-represented, as the response rate in the youngest groups was below average.
The average questionnaire consisted of approximately 16 pages and about 70 questions, most of them with fixed-answer options. Participants were asked about frequency of use of news on social media: “How often do you generally use news from the following [sources] on the Internet?” A seven-point scale was used: Daily, 5–6 days a week, 3–4 days a week, 1–2 days a week, More seldom, Never. The independent variables are captured in several different survey questions. Sex and age (year of birth) were integrated with the data-set from public registers. Formal education was measured in eight fixed categories. Use of online news services and use of social media were determined in a battery of questions about online activities: “How often do you generally use the Internet to do the following?” An eight-point scale was provided: Never, Once during the last 12 months, Once during the last 6 months, Sometime in the last 3 months, Once a month, Once a week, Several times a week and Daily. Interest in news was measured for four locations: Sweden, residential area, the municipality where you live and other countries, and an index was constructed with all four of these factors. A four-point scale was used for interest in news and for political interest: Very interested, Fairly interested, Not very interested and Not at all interested.
As with other statistical surveys, this questionnaire provides a general picture of use of news in social media. To achieve in-depth insight into young people’s use of news in social media, with regard to incidental consumption and the role of opinion leaders (i.e. research questions two and three), group interviews also were conducted. These took place during spring 2016. A total of 44 persons, aged 16–19, participated. All were students at two different high schools. One offers vocational programmes and the other provides college preparatory courses. One-third of those interviewed were attending a vocational administration or trade programme. Two-thirds were attending a college preparatory technology programme. The group interviews were conducted with four to seven students per group, at their respective schools. Each interview lasted for about one hour. This study focused on investigating not only the presence of news in young people’s SNS flows, but also: (a) on how they reflect on news occurring in their flow as encountered incidentally; and (b) their view on the role of opinion leaders.
Before the interviews, the interviewees were asked what kind of incidents and events they consider news worthy and how they would define social media, after that a simplified but stringent definition of news and social media was given to provide a consensus around the concept and for the convenience of those interviewed. The following definitions were presented:
News: “Something that has happened or is still happening, that is being told by the media, which was previously unknown, about something which is of greater value for the many, and affects people’s lives, in one way or another”.
Social media: “A collective term for different digital platforms allowing people to communicate with each other, through for example text, picture or sound. The difference between social media and other media is that the content is often produced by the users themselves”.
There were 19 questions in the interview guide, with follow-up questions inserted when it was deemed relevant. Many of the questions led to discussions among the students, and it is possible that some participants could have been influenced by their peers. There were, for example, answers referring to previous comments, but for most of the time the students discussed their own personal experiences. The interviews were recorded and transcribed before being analysed. The quotations presented, in the article, were translated to English by the authors.
The respondents also answered a written questionnaire with a variety of questions about: what kind of news they receive in their SNS flows; what access they had to traditional forms of media at home; what types of digital technology they used; whether they considered themselves interested in news or not; and the extent to which their news consumption could be described as planned or incidental. These questions were posed to gain a brief idea of the students’ access to digital technology, as well as their interest in news, without burdening the group interviews with too many individual questions. This questionnaire was not a focus of the analysis, but rather was used when background information was of interest.
The first research question dealt with how common news consumption is in young people’s SNS settings. This was measured with a survey question about how frequently participants read news in a social network. The share of readers of news on social media, in the general population, is 51 per cent (Bergström 2016). In the age group studied here—16–25 year olds—the figure is 91 per cent. Forty-four per cent are daily readers; 38 per cent are weekly but not daily readers; 9 per cent more seldom obtain news on social media; and another 9 per cent never used social media to access news within the last 12 months.
Reading news, as outlined in the theoretical section, is strongly related to socio-demographic background and above all age. Other strong explanatory factors were formal education and political interest. It is also likely that general online news habits might influence news use via SNSs among the young persons’ studied.
Many of these factors are correlated, and a multivariate analysis (Ordinary Least Square Regression) was conducted (Table 1). The single most important factor in the model is the habit of using online news services, which is positively correlated to news use on social media when controlling for the other factors in the model. Young people who frequently visit news sites also have a more frequent habit of picking up news in their SNS flows. There are also weak but significant effects of an interest in news (the more interest, the more use of news in SNSs), age (the younger, the more use) and sex (slightly more frequent use among young females, as opposed to males).
Table 1 Consumption of news in social media, regression (OLS), 2015
It is reasonable to assume that factors normally contributing to the understanding of news habits might be of less import when studying SNS—a news context fundamentally different from other media (Bode 2016). Use of social media primarily has other drivers, with news obtained more incidentally in relation to those more direct motivating factors.
There is also some impact of age, interest in news and sex, but although statistically significant, these correlations are weak. Within this group of younger people studied in the survey, news consumption in SNS decreases with age. Further, young women and have more frequent habits of using news in SNSs, as do people who have a higher interest in news generally.
In contrast to what is known from studies of news consumption in legacy news media, formal education and political interest are weakly correlated with exposure to news in the SNS setting. The findings overall point to a potential path to news which has a different arc than previous paths through traditional news sources have had. That said, it is important to keep in mind that much of the news occurring in the SNS feeds originates in legacy media.
The findings from the survey suggest more in-depth studies of social media users, and their exposure to news in that context. This is captured in the interview study which, firstly, confirms the survey results on young people’s use of news in SNSs. Most of the interviewees do get news through social media. Out of 44 young people interviewed, 39 answered unquestionably “yes” to that query. Some added that they actively have chosen to follow news sites on social media. Others indicated their motivation had to do with sharing with friends; one person stated they obtain all their news on Facebook. Questionnaire results indicated the most common way the young interviewees obtain news is through social media. Facebook is the platform mentioned most often, but Instagram, Snapchat, Youtube and Twitter also are present in their SNS news context.
Although the reason they use SNSs is not primarily to access news, almost all interviewees report that they are interested in current affairs and in keeping up with news on civic and political issues, both in Sweden and abroad. Several report that they are most interested in “big news”, by which they mean news that affects society in a major way and that impacts many people. Approximately, one-third of the respondents were born outside Sweden, and many of them follow news from their country of origin.
Corresponding to previous research on news interest among youth (The Swedish Media Council 2015), the interviewees are interested in sports, entertainment and news about celebrities. It is apparent that the youth in this study also are interested in social and civic issues such as domestic and foreign politics. Further, they make a clear distinction between the latter and articles dealing with more lightweight concerns.
Dimensions of Incidental Use
The second research question addresses what has been described in the research literature as incidental exposure to news. It became evident when analysing the material that many respondents perceived their news consumption on SNSs in this manner. More than half of the interviewed students report that they get news incidentally in their feeds. At times this is because news organisations have their own presence on social media, and respondents decided to follow such accounts. A more predominant reason, though, is that their friends share news items:
I get a lot from friends who have “liked” or written comments, mainly incidentally, but every day, many times.
My consumption is incidental, it’s always someone who “shares”, or “likes” or comments. I see a lot even if I haven’t made a choice”
Many interviewees also stated that they have different types of apps and push notifications related to news on their mobile devices. But, interestingly enough, all of them even those who do not actively follow news organisations seem to expect that when something “big” or important is happening domestically or internationally, it will show up in their social media feeds. Many of the interviewees expressed that, in a sense, they do not have to search for news. Rather, if sufficiently important or interesting, the news will find them (c.f. Madden, Lenhart, and Fontaine 2017). This indicates that they do not mind receiving news through SNSs; quite the contrary, it seems to have become a natural part of their SNS experience, and furthermore, something they count on.
In this regard the interviewees report similar behaviour as has been seen in previous research (Swart, Peters, and Broersma 2016; Yadamsuren and Erdelez 2010). The question arises whether this can really be conceptualised as incidental consumption. To a certain extent the news exposure is deliberate, in that being updated and informed in this manner is being taken for granted. There seems to be a deliberate choice to keep up with current affairs via SNSs, though this is not always conducted in a systematic way.
It also became clear that the question of incidental news consumption can be interpreted in at least two ways: news showing up on SNSs in an incidental way, as opposed to consuming news in SNSs deliberately. News does appear in one’s feed, mixed in with other updates, and the consumption is indeed incidental as opposed to planned, since the intention when one uses SNSs is not primarily news acquisition. Thus, there is a grey zone in SNS news consumption between incidental and more deliberate ways of obtaining news, compared to its acquisition through traditional news cycle. However, our study also indicates a level of awareness of this among the young participants.
I used to have news push applications and alerts; Aftonbladet, GP, Expressen [Swedish daily newspapers], but I got rid of them, it was way too much, I got beeps from my phone all the time.
There is also some level of awareness concerning the algorithm’s part in this, i.e. some of the interviewees know that if one clicks on a news link on a social media platform, the algorithms will most likely deliver more from that source in the future:
In one way it’s planned, on Facebook, for example, if you have clicked on a news article, then it’s like they know you want that kind of news, and [more news like that] will keep appearing [in your feed].
Thus, a click that is incidental today might, due to ones knowledge about algorithms, become part of ones news consumption plan.
The Role of Opinion Leaders
The third research question regards the role others play in exposing people to news via SNSs. It is evident that most of the interviewees perceive some specific people as opinion leaders in their SNS feeds. These are one or more persons particularly active in their social media flows, who update often, post news and links to the original source, and also often comment on the shared news. These persons also, according to the interviewees, bring context to news articles.
A common response across participants was that such persons are especially well-read. They are perceived to have in-depth knowledge of certain topics, for instance sports, feminism and politics. It seems these people are respected on the basis of this expertise in specific subject areas. This is something that most interviewees seem to appreciate and value. This phenomenon is consistent with previous research (Choi 2015; Hermida et al. 2012; Holton et al. 2015; Karlsen 2015; Weeks and Holberg 2013; Yadamsuren and Erdelez 2010). The opinion leaders are perceived to have significance in that they pay attention to and flag news items the interviewees otherwise would have missed. They also seem to play an important role regarding the interviewees need for interpretation.
They are very important to me, since I have many [in my feed] who are interested in politics. I usually read what they think and say. What plans they have, what they want, what they are going to do, it’s important. I learn things.
It’s good; I get information I would have missed.
They have special knowledge, you can trust them.
The quotes indicate that these opinion leaders are perceived as essential or even crucial in passing on news. Further, the respondents seem highly aware of the opinion leaders’ role as vehicles and mediators of salient content. The interviewees also expressed that they depend on them.
Some respondents stated they have made individual choices to enhance the flow of news in their feed, for instance, actively choosing to follow news organisations or individual journalists. Here, the typical motive was a wish to be informed about what is going on in their hometown and, as well, to be updated on domestic or international news. Most participants, whether active or less active, stated they keep on top of what they refer to as “big” international news:
On Twitter, which I use now, I follow certain people that are involved in politics, and also gamers. It partly consists of ‘shares’ and partly active choices that I have done.
I don’t use Twitter, I use Instagram. That’s where I move things forward, [since] I’ve chosen specific people. I’ve chosen those [accounts] that generate news.
I have chosen several groups on Facebook that interest me; some of it is news but not all of it.
Counting on others means that one seeks out sources other than traditional news distributors. The interviewees all seem to be fairly aware of the importance of being critical of sources. In discussing what matters most, the source or the topic, two aspects emerged. First, the source is important for credibility and the topic is important for personal interest. Second, participants’ interest increases significantly if the news is passed along and/or commented on by a friend.
This second feature can be seen to reflect the ongoing development of social media. Initially it was a tool for interpersonal relations, more concerning private and social matters. Now it is increasingly filled with news material, and thereby becoming a part of the users’ news consumption. As long as users mostly were engaging in more personal matters, there was no immediate need to concern oneself about the source. Either one knew the person directly, or the content was not sufficiently important to fact-check. But when one’s feed is now being filled with a wide variety of news and news-related posts, from less-known origins, one has to more carefully consider the content source and its factual basis.
Yet not all interviewees agreed on the importance of the source. Twelve of the 44 students stated that the source does not impact their interest in a news item. They will read it, and perhaps also click further. They argue, instead, it is the topic that is the most important factor. If they are interested in the latter, they are more likely to read news stories about it. That said, they are definitely aware of the source:
If a friend has shared something I check it out, and then I continue to the original source to see that it is correct. It’s like, I get to know about it through a friend, and then I go further.
There is a difference, what friends put out is more interesting, and if they share something, or write something, you want to read that, to see if you agree or not. After that you want to read facts, not opinions. You get more info that way, if you get to hear the different arguments.
It, therefore, seems that many of the interviewees have identified the function of the filtering, interpreting and decoding that opinion leaders can offer. This seems to stem from an awareness of a particular need for help in orienting oneself within the news media landscape. Drawing on the findings, however, it is not evident this help necessarily comes from a professional journalist. Rather, interviewees left open the possibility for others to contribute to the news distributing process. Further, as the quotes show, if the topic is interesting enough, or if respondents want to check facts, they may secondarily turn to original sources. These might very well be professional news distributors. If participants’ interest in a specific news item then grows further, they may continue to explore the subject by searching for more information on the Internet.
Conclusion and Discussion
Viewing of news via SNSs can be said to be relatively widespread. The share of daily news consumers on social media is larger than for specific news outlets among young Swedes, and it is evident that news is a significant part of the content in people’s SNS feeds. Young adults express that they acquire news from their feeds. Further, they even count on this content to keep them updated about current affairs. Social networks are definitely emerging as spaces where deliberate and incidental news consumption coexist. It is also clear that the news shared in young persons’ feeds serves to widen their scope of information, in that they unintentionally come across news items they would have missed out on, had it been relegated to traditional platforms.
Costera Meijer and Kormelink (2014) consider the term “news snacking”. They describe this as consumption of brief news pieces, a lean-back way of news processing, which serves the purpose of just obtaining a basic overview. While it is used primarily for entertainment and to use up time, it can be a starting point for more in-depth news consumption. The ways the interviewees in our study describe their news consumption in SNS feeds suggests they are mainly consuming news in this fashion. They also emphasise the role network friends play in engendering interest in the first place.
The young adults studied also clearly identify opinion leaders when it comes to news distribution in their SNSs. They express a positive attitude towards these people and even see them as a prerequisite for their keeping up on the news. It is evident that the concept of opinion leaders is highly relevant in the SNS news context (c.f. Choi 2015; Karlsen 2015). This, in turn, suggests that news would spread only occasionally in many young people’s SNS flows if certain people did not share it. Just as noted by Hogan and Quan-Haase (2010), we found friends’ sharing is of greater importance than the news disseminated by the media business. This clearly means that when relying on news distribution in SNSs, legacy news channels are largely in the hands of ordinary people.
This suggests the importance of source, rather than topic, when young people decide what to read in their SNS feed. Our findings, though, indicate that source and topic are both of great importance for picking up a news item, and that their respective different motive for importance is blurring to the respondents. A recent study by Young (2015) including both survey and interviews, shows that young people also tend to use different paths to news, ways they deem reasonable in relation to the topic. In so doing they rely on an assumption about source credibility and source knowledge. Therefore, even in this case the source seems to play an important role. Young’s study further showed that the topic mattered: when it came to news covering such areas as economy, crime, foreign affairs and the environment, study participants reported turning to professional news organisations. When the topics were about human rights-issues such as abortion, religion, race and LGBTQ rights, social media sources were preferred. A “curated” path, such as on semi-professional blogs, would instead be chosen when looking for news about consumer information, how-to advice, hobbies, and news or information about one’s career. Future research needs to more closely study news paths for different issues in a complex and constantly changing media landscape.
The topic of content is strongly related to the consequences of selective exposure. Interpreting our findings, it seems hard to avoid news in a feed constantly updated by a wide-ranging social network. Further, there is clear evidence of incidental consumption. It has been discussed in the public debate whether, rather than broadening news-gathering horizons, social media reduces the scope. It seems, however, that the high-choice media environment that social media constitutes might be a mechanism opening any so-called “filter bubble” or “echo chamber” (Hosanagar et al. 2014). As such, it might contribute in closing information gaps (Bode 2016). Otherwise put, SNSs could be a growing platform for news engagement in times where people easily can opt out of news reading altogether (Beam et al. 2017). This points to the need for in-depth research about what avoiding news, or being in an echo chamber really means, if this phenomenon even exists.
Our study points out a diverse news diet among the young people interviewed. Respondents also displayed a desire to stay updated, and a trust in others to keep them informed. We do not know from the limited data, however, whether this is common in the overall population and encourage further examination of these areas in representative, large-scale studies. The survey analysis indicates that there might be differences also within the group of young adults with regard to news habits in SNS, and to further widen the scope of incidental consumption and the role of opinion leaders, there is a need also for in-depth studies with young person’s post-high school. Further, our study points to the need for more research on what is actually perceived as news in today’s media landscape. It seems that the boundaries people draw between news and other information are definitively shifting (Swart, Peters, and Broersma 2016). Additional investigation in this area is therefore encouraged.
News is essential in Western democracies. This has been claimed, first and foremost, in relation to legacy news media. Dependence on the SNS feed to provide necessary or desired news further raises questions about how reliable these feeds are in delivering such content. Does the individual user receive about the same varied news mix as, for instance, a newspaper reader or one following main broadcast channels? Is each person’s feed satisfying from an informed citizen’s perspective? This study does not capture whether news in SNS feeds could be equal to legacy news media, vis à vis enlightenment of citizens. Rather, it identifies the need for effect studies, to determine the contribution of SNSs as news providers on a societal level.
It is evident from the findings of this study that young people to a great extent consume news appearing in their SNS feed, and that this largely is a part of a more general digital activity. Although incidental, the interviewees count on the news to occur rather frequent, and they to a large extent count on people in their networks to pass on everyday news on different topics. One overall conclusion is that even though SNSs are not a primary source themselves, they nonetheless could be considered an important distributor of current affairs from legacy media companies and other conventional sources. While abandoning traditional distribution forms, many people will continue to encounter traditional distributors, though this might happen across alternative settings. SNSs should be considered a significant factor in this context. The role of social media, thus, merits further emphasis in future research on news repertoires.