Study: Americans believe social networks make the news worse

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You’re not alone if you think social networks are degrading the quality of news. A Pew study indicates that 62 percent of American adults believe social media companies have “too much control” over news, and 55 percent believe these companies have created a “worse mix” of news through their feed algorithms and other editorial choices. Not surprisingly, the survey respondents pinned it on the quality of the news that surfaced in their social streams.

About 88 percent of those in the study said that social networks favored news outlets with “attention-grabbing articles” — that is, sensationalist fare. Roughly 84 percent said companies liked sites that had many social followers, while 79 percent thought the companies favored news with a specific political stance. There were also gripes about bias, with 53 percent saying one-sided news represented a “very big problem” while 51 percent felt the same about inaccurate or fake news.

And yes, the perceived level of bias depended on political leanings. People who lean Republican were more likely to claim that sites had excessive control (75 percent versus 53 percent), and more likely to argue the sites were liberal. Neither side thought the sites were especially conservative, however, with a mere 18 percent of Democrat supporters claiming social sites generally leaned to the right.

Not that these complaints are deterring people from reading all the same — in fact, they’re more reliant on social networks for news than ever before. Where 18 percent of users said they often relied on social media for news in 2016, 28 percent of them do as of 2019. Unsurprisingly, more than half (52 percent) of Americans sourced news from Facebook, 28 percent from YouTube and 17 percent from Twitter.

This isn’t necessarily a definitive study. Pew was gauging opinions from 5,107 people in its American Trends Panel. That’s a healthy survey size, but it might not be perfectly representative of sentiments. However, it does illustrate the challenges for Facebook, Twitter and others as they try to improve their news. Many people are distrustful, and simply tweaking algorithms or adding human curation may not be enough for those convinced social networks are a destructive influence.

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