Does Social Media Impact Our Trust in the News?

As part of my studies at the University of Oklahoma Masters in the Public Administration Program, we were given access to exit poll information from the November 2020 Presidential Election. Coming into December, we can’t officially call the election over, at least until the lawsuits stop, but we can maybe start to examine how we got here. The reality is that faith in mass media has been declining for over 20 years with no real end in sight. The lack of trust impacts our country’s ability to trust other core institutions like our election infrastructure or health and safety programs. Who are the people that mistrust traditional news, and how did they come to be this way?

Getting to the core societal cause of this phenomenon is a bit more than what this post can take on. However, we can look at Oklahoma City exit poll data and see if we can at least find some correlations between behaviors and beliefs. Given the exit poll’s focus on the Oklahoma City area, it would be unwise to extrapolate the results too broadly. Now we move to the key hypothesis of what is causing so much mistrust, and it’s the rise of social media. Specifically, the use of social media as a preferred news source.

Social media itself is not a new phenomenon. As you can see from the Hootsuite graphic below, there are billions of social media users worldwide, and these numbers likely skew towards industrialized nations such as the United States.

Social Media and Oklahoma City

Some people that read this may be shocked to find out that Oklahoma City is actually a diverse and technologically capable community. I have several friends on the coasts that like to ask me what kind of horse I own. For the record, we don’t… yet.

A Few Times a Week144
About Once a Day273
Every Few Months37
Every Few Weeks52
Never137
Several Times a Day917
OKC Exit Polling Data: Social Media Use (1500 respondents)

As we can see, social media is a tool employed by nearly 80% of respondents daily, with the vast majority of those respondents reporting they engage with social media several times a day. While a high usage rate may not indicate that the exit poll respondent is influenced, it can’t be denied that there are more opportunities for influence upon repeated viewings. In contrast to social media engagement, it’s important to look at how often respondents were checking on the news.

If respondents are engaging multiple times a day with social media, the same can’t be said to consume the “news.” The exit poll survey question is written as such, “during a typical week, how many days do you watch, read or listen to the news, not including sports,” which feels as though they are asking how often people are specifically seeking out the news. I feel this is an important distinction because social media users will casually or indirectly be presented with information related to “the news” without having to seek it out actively.

Does Social Media Usage Impact Trust in Traditional News?

Where does the mistrust in traditional news outlets reside? Is mistrust exacerbated by the use of social media? The numbers do not seem to indicate this is the case. In fact, the inverse may be true, which means that social media users are more likely to trust, at least at some level, traditional news outlets. The inverse appears true as respondents report less trust in traditional news sources for those that use social media less.

 Distrust GreatlyDistrust SomewhatNeutralTrust SomewhatTrust Greatly
Few Times a Week19%19%25%13%24%
Once a Day19%21%24%11%25%
Every Few Months22%19%8%19%32%
Every Few Weeks15%25%21%6%33%
Several Times a Day18%14%12%19%29%
Never30%14%19%12%23%
percent of trust in traditional media sources based on social media usage

Social media usage may not be a strong predictor of trust in traditional news, but it can offer other insights into the likeliest method that people will seek out news. I believe that there is an assumption that the stronger the influence of social media, measured by the frequency of engagement, the more polarized the respondent will be. Hypothetically this would demonstrate itself by showing those users that leverage social media multiple times per day would depend on Fox News or MSNBC/CNN, representatives of partisan news channels, more so than other outlets.

News Source Dependency for Social Media Users engaging multiple times per day

The above graphic shows that respondents who engage in social media multiple times a day are fairly evenly distributed across the major cable news networks, except for MSNBC, a cultural/demographic item for the Oklahoma City area. What’s important to grasp from the above image is that social media becomes the source of news for social media users. This aligns with research from the Pew Research Center that shows social media outpacing print news as a news source and speaks to the danger that social media presents to our culture as social media as a news outlet is not regulated nor held accountable. Per another study from the Pew Research Center6+, Americans who get their news on social media are less engaged, less knowledgable, and ultimately more exposed to conspiracies that have the potential to impact our government through the election of conspiracy theory minded politicians.

When we turn our attention to those users with no social media usage, the results flip considerably.

News Source Dependency for Respondents with no reported Social Media usage

With respondents who reported no social media usage, we see that the dependency on news shifts from social media to local television. The Fox News usage aligns with expectations for the Oklahoma City area, but it is the local television engagement that is most striking. The other major shift, outside of the obvious difference in social media dependency, is the utilization of talk radio. Those with no social media engagement would likely fall into our traditional understanding of local demographics showing that social media disrupts traditional news consumption methods in the Oklahoma City area.

Social Media, Age, and Trust

Broadly speaking, social media engagement is dominated by the millennial generation (35-44), followed closely by the gen-z generation (45-54). As you can see in the table below, social media engagement rapidly begins to decline at the age of 55 as the demographics shift into the Baby Boomer generation.

 18-2425-3435-4445-5455-6465 and older
Several Times a Day13%24%24%15%13%10%
Once a Day14%16%17%13%15%25%
Few Times a Week16%16%21%10%15%23%
Every Few Weeks12%19%19%12%15%23%
Every Few Months11%8%24%8%24%24%
Never4%10%8%9%24%45%
Social media engagement by age group

Are there correlations between age and trust in media? Do we see respondent age and social media engagement correlate to the amount of trust in mainstream news?

Trust in Main Stream News Sources by Age Category

Trust by age category doesn’t offer anything more in terms of the understanding of trust. Middle-aged respondents seem to trust more so than younger or older respondents. The 18-24 demographic is entirely conflicted, and I would argue that distrust and indifference are likely the same for some respondents. This take is entirely unscientific, but I remember how strongly I used to feel like a young man and how looking back, I really had no clue what I was talking about. If mistrust isn’t necessarily a function of mistrust in the media, where can we look? How about ideology?

Trust in Main Stream News Sources by Political Ideology

Here we begin to see more of a pattern in terms of where mistrust in traditional news media lies, at least according to the exit poll respondents. Respondents indicating they are more liberal are far more likely to trust mainstream news sources. Liberal respondents are almost directly inverse to conservative respondents. The source of the strongest ideology occurs for those in the millennial generation.

Respondents Ideology by Age Category

Before moving on to the conclusion, we will look at the data by looking at social media engagement by age category (which we have already done). Still, this time we will group the respondents by ideology.

No Ideology18 – 2425 – 3435 – 4445 – 5455 – 6465 and Older
A few times a week0%20%40%0%0%40%
About once a day22%22%11%22%11%11%
Every few months0%0%0%100%0%0%
Every few weeks50%50%0%0%0%0%
Never0%31%15%0%31%23%
Several times a day41%30%11%11%0%7%
Moderate Ideology18 – 2425 – 3435 – 4445 – 5455 – 6465 and Older
A few times a week24%18%16%8%16%18%
About once a day17%16%21%13%14%20%
Every few months9%18%18%0%18%36%
Every few weeks18%24%24%0%24%12%
Never7%14%9%7%23%41%
Several times a day16%26%23%15%12%8%
Somewhat Conservative18 – 2425 – 3435 – 4445 – 5455 – 6465 and Older
A few times a week11%19%7%15%22%26%
About once a day14%18%10%10%14%33%
Every few months17%0%33%17%17%17%
Every few weeks0%0%14%43%14%29%
Never4%11%4%14%25%43%
Several times a day15%20%13%19%15%19%
Very Conservative18 – 2425 – 3435 – 4445 – 5455 – 6465 and Older
A few times a week13%21%33%0%17%17%
About once a day5%8%28%18%13%28%
Every few months13%0%25%0%50%13%
Every few weeks0%10%10%20%10%50%
Never0%4%4%8%28%56%
Several times a day7%18%23%19%21%12%
Somewhat Liberal18 – 2425 – 3435 – 4445 – 5455 – 6465 and Older
A few times a week15%10%30%5%15%25%
About once a day8%15%10%10%23%33%
Every few months13%13%25%0%13%38%
Every few weeks17%33%17%0%33%0%
Never6%0%6%0%19%69%
Several times a day13%28%20%13%13%13%
Very Liberal18 – 2425 – 3435 – 4445 – 5455 – 6465 and Older
A few times a week11%6%22%22%6%33%
About once a day18%24%12%15%12%18%
Every few months0%0%33%33%33%0%
Every few weeks10%20%30%10%0%30%
Never0%0%18%27%27%27%
Several times a day9%26%37%14%9%5%
Social Media Usage by Age Category – Grouped by Ideology

Conclusion

This blog post started out as an attempt to be critical of social media but the reality is there just isn’t as much to this argument as I originally thought. Saying social media itself is responsible for rotting our collective minds reminds me of how people would warned us all on how violent video games would make us and that hasn’t necessarily transpired. After spending time with the exit poll data I am more convinced that it’s not social media that is destroying our trust, it’s our own inability to accept information that goes against what we want to believe is true.

For the past five years, we have heard about “fake news,” and politicians on all levels have unfortunately normalized that phrase. Social media is the perfect tool to spread disinformation, especially with a full-on rejection of the fourth estate. Social media is preferred because people can seek out information that makes them feel better about their own perspective. I believe this is partially where conservativism is at this point, where the information doesn’t suit their needs, so the answer is to stick their heads in the sand and wholly reject others’ opinions or perspectives. However, confirmation bias puts people in a vulnerable position, making them more susceptible to misinformation, further clouding the environment.

Undoubtedly conservatives can make the same argument, but the claims of continuous fake news harken back to the Soviet Union’s information warfare tactic of “Whataboutism,” which is designed not to inform but to muddy the message or sow doubt. It’s not about trust. It’s about not pushing back on those not aligning with tribal values or norms.

In closing, Americans are effectively conducting information warfare on each other, and while social media is a vehicle, it is not the cause. I won’t pretend to understand all the nuance of how we got here and where do we go next. Still, the numbers paint an interesting picture of the relationship between age, ideology, social media, and trust in our traditional news outlets.

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