For news, younger Americans increasingly turn to social media | WORLD
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Trading TV for TikTok

TRENDING | Social platforms are now the primary news source for 1 in 5 Americans. Is a completely pre-programmed electorate far behind?

Illustration by Ale+Ale

Trading TV for TikTok
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On the evening of Jan. 6, 2021, college student Mariana Rico sat in the sound booth at Shadow­brook Church in Suwanee, Ga., running lights and sound for a youth event. When the projector finally went dark and the students settled in for the sermon, Mariana and her boyfriend Joshua scrolled Twitter, gazing in astonishment at images recorded earlier that day at the U.S. Capitol. Was it an insurrection? A protest gone too far? Mariana and Joshua didn’t know what to think: “We kind of just sat in silence.”

While previous generations might have turned to the evening news to learn about the Jan. 6 Capitol breach, many Americans, especially younger ones like Mariana and Joshua, got their information on social media. Today, 19 percent of Americans regularly get news through social media. Outlets like CNN and The New York Times have long used social platforms to promote their content. Social media as a primary news source, though, is relatively new—and not without cost. While social media can provide quick, citizen-journalist accounts of world events, traditional news sources often provide more context. Skipping the latter in favor of the former is yielding an electorate whose views are shaped increasingly by ­algorithms of their own making.

Overall, Americans just don’t follow the news as closely as they used to. A Pew Research study found that unique visitors to the top 50 news outlets dropped 20 percent in 2022. Skepticism about the reliability of mass media may be contributing to that trend: In the 1970s, about 70 percent of Americans said that they trusted newspapers, TV, and radio. Only 40 percent said the same in 2020.

Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Social media has filled in the knowledge gap for Gen Z Americans especially—or at least, they think it has. Younger Americans love video-driven TikTok, which, its Chinese espionage flaws notwithstanding, does provide immediacy. Many users see TikTok’s ubiquity as a positive development. For example, Center for Information Resilience’s Benjamin Strick told The Atlantic that TikTok allowed his team to monitor Russian troop movements: Eighty to 90 percent of the videos they were able to document and verify were originally posted to TikTok by civilians, he said. The war in Ukraine has been dubbed the first “TikTok War.”

In a post dated Feb. 24, 2022, one TikTok user uploaded footage of a smoggy Kyiv as missiles trailed like signal flares across the night sky. It was the first day of the war, and TikTok and Instagram users could follow it in real time, using the phones in their hands.

It’s hard to pinpoint inaccuracies on social media, though. A study conducted by the News Literacy Project found that of K-12 students surveyed, only half felt capable of distinguishing facts from falsehoods online. Deepfakes, imagery created using artificial intelligence, are increasingly prevalent on social media, and they have become more sophisticated. By the end of 2023, an estimated 500,000 deepfake videos will have been shared on social media.

Social media is an obvious breeding ground for so-called “fake news,” but the real problem is in the way social media is designed: It amplifies the content most likely to stimulate user engagement. The Reuters Institute found most users don’t like this idea—that socials are serving up news items that are not as important as they are pre-programmed. And yet, users continue to respond to this­ programming, guaranteeing they will receive more of what they were already looking for, thereby skewing their perception of world events.

Rather than being the active seekers and consumers of news … [users] become the passive recipients of it, simply taking what’s given to them.

Since they sell ads, social media companies want to maximize time users spent on their apps. If you have a passion for hand-knit sweaters, for example, and watch crafting videos on TikTok, the platform will quickly adapt to show you similar content. The same goes for the news. Depending on what past usage reveals about a person’s views on the Israel-Hamas War, their feed will conform to provide pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian news content—omitting the full picture.

This November, 52 percent of Americans ages 18-34 said they sympathized with Palestine, up from 15 percent in 2014. Since 2015, the number of social media users worldwide has more than doubled, to more than 4 billion. This exponential increase in social media use may not be solely responsible for the change in public attitudes, but it has likely been a factor.

Gen Z doesn’t appear to be any less concerned about global events than older Americans, but they may be substantially less informed. About a third of Gen Z respondents in a recent poll said they didn’t feel fully prepared before voting in the 2022 midterms. Those who felt unprepared said they got their information from the internet or social media.

Of the 41 million eligible Gen Z voters in 2024, many will have gotten the news from their “For You” page. In a decade, this age group will make up over one-third of U.S. voters.

Bekah McCallum

Bekah is a reviewer, reporter, and editorial assistant at WORLD. She is a graduate of World Journalism Institute and Anderson University.


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