A Consideration for Digital Reporting: Who Posts Political Stories to Social Media?

If you’re a journalist (and especially if you’re a political journalist), a new stat worth knowing about social media usage came out a couple days after last week’s piece on “The Twitter Narrative,” a look at who is on and uses Twitter.

According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project’s “Social Media and Political Engagement” report, just 28 percent of American social media users have “used the tools to post political stories or articles for others to read.”

Interesting on its own, but better with context. What’s the percentage of “social media users” in America? According to Pew’s report, it’s 60 percent who use “social networking sites” (categorized as Facebook, LinkedIn or Google+)  and/or uses Twitter. In other words, it’s 28 percent of only 60 percent of Americans who are the ones sharing the political links you see during your daily reporting activities. Doing the math, that’s under 17 percent who are social media-sharing the political links you eat and breathe.

Sidenote: the social media users who are “liberal Democrats” and “conservative Republicans” are “the most likely to have used social media this way,” coming in 39 percent and 34 percent respectively. (The margin of error for all this is 3.1.)

Why is this sharing stat important? It’s not like these are the only people reading political stories, after all. The Pew stats don’t show who is clicking on links and reading the stories, and it doesn’t account for that “dark social” of email and IM you’re reading about lately (regardless of its size). This just-shy-of-17 percent of American adults posting political stories stat is important, however, because some of what you’re exposed to on very public platforms – and what may as a result get a lot of attention in your reporting, or personal opinion – is often run off of algorithms. And the people sharing political content there, those who pump the algorithms, are relatively few.

Let’s consider the prime example of a homebase environment that runs substantially off of algorithms (including links that are shared): Facebook. What you’re seeing in your News Feed isn’t representative of all the public’s thoughts, even though it can consciously (or perhaps worse, subconcsiously) influence what you as a member of media cover. This is part-filter bubble talk, and shouldn’t be new. You’re not Facebook friends with the entire public, and Facebook’s algorithms run off of Facebook friend connections (in conjunction with your friend’s friends connections). You’re automatically going to see a certain selection of views. What is new to note and add to this understanding is the scope of links shared that you can see — the amount of people who are posting news that’s political. Because you’re on Facebook a lot (potentially during the debate tonight), this is important to recognize.

Combined with Pew reports containing other stats about social media and politics, this stat is another gut-check worth noting for a healthy understanding of who is influencing your coverage, if any of your coverage is based off of what you see. In your attempt to ward off any confirmation bias or “pack-mind journalism,” it’s another insight for knowing your source (who often times, on these platforms, is also your audience). Seventeen percent is not a lot of the American public, and because of the wording of the survey, who knows if that 17 percent regularly shares political stories (or, for that matter, what their jobs are. Not that it’d make up the majority of users, I’m sure, but I’d still be interested to see how many American social media users are journalists or PR professionals, or columnists or strategists).

If you dig into the age distribution of answers to this survey on engagement, what the 17 percent is sharing is probably even less representative of the public. Younger users do use social media more in this way, according to the report, and then younger voters often have different preferences in what are important issues. This additionally affects what stories get shared, and by extension, some of what you see.

For the digital journalist, you want this sort of thing in the front of your consciousness, not the back.

Stories of course aren’t the only influential thing on a social media site like Facebook either. The Pew report has some additionally relevant data for consideration in other aspects that factor into the environment you live in and report on, too (and what also drives algorithms, in addition to shared links).

Another sidenote: Remember, despite Twitter’s heavy link-sharing culture, only 13 percent of the Americans “ever use Twitter or read Twitter messages.” The argument could certainly be made that most of these stats sway towards how people use Facebook, the most popular American social networking site which is also a hotbed for information by algorithm.

Among other interesting findings in the Pew report:

·      38% of those who use social networking sites (SNS) or Twitter use those social media to “like” or promote material related to politics or social issues that others have posted.

·      Liberal Democrats who use social media are particularly likely to use the ‘like’ button—52% of them have done so and 42% of conservative Republicans have also done so

(Consider this in covering memes, which, on a medium like Facebook, rise because of factors like number of likes.)

·      34% of social media users have used the tools to post their own thoughts or comments on political and social issues. Liberal Democrats who use social media (42%) and conservative Republicans (41%) are especially likely to use social media this way.

(Consider this, in combination with who shares stories and like button preferences, when looking at what people are talking about on social media.)

Note: The data was taken from this summer (between July 16 and August 7, 2012), admittedly a time when less people were (probably) paying attention to politics. Perhaps the stats have swelled a bit, but who knows. In any case, it’s good for any journalist to know the current numbers not just of the political polls, but also of the social media landscape. Each has some level of influence on coverage, direct or indirect. And whether numbers are higher or lower now, it’s always important to look at the details.

These political engagement stats are also probably important for measuring which stories “do well” on your social accounts.