Why has the growth in news consumption on social media slowed down?

At the touch of a social media app, we now have access to information galore. 

Just this past July, a survey from the Pew Research Center found that more than half of the U.S. adults – some 52% – get their news from Facebook, making it the champion social platform for news sourcing. At 28% and 17%, YouTube and Twitter took the silver and bronze respectively, while a variety of other platforms – such as Instagram, LinkedIn, Reddit and Snapchat – also made smaller but still noteworthy appearances.

However, at a time when social media plays such an important role in providing news for an increasingly large share of the populace, it’s interesting that the survey revealed that a lot of people – 62% of respondents to be precise – felt social media companies exerted too much control over the way news appeared online. It was their belief that the intervention of social has actually resulted in users being presented with a selection of news which is less balanced than it could – or should – be.

So, this apparent widespread pessimism among users about the role social media companies play in delivering the news begs a couple of important questions: is consumption of news on social media really slowing down, and if so, what can newsrooms do about it?

But before we delve deeper into all that, first we need to have a look at how active people are on social media to begin with. 

Let’s get statistical!

Social media use by generation and by numbers

Based on data from nearly 114,000 internet users, Visual Capitalist issued an insightful study about the demographics of the social media world.

For all the memes about Baby Boomers being technologically incompetent, it’s this group who have really, really, embraced social media of late. Indeed, since 2016 there’s been a 59% increase of Boomers on Instagram, and 44% more on WhatsApp – more than double any other demographic.

Wedged between the Baby Boomer and the much more frequently written-about millennial generation, Generation X have probably switched off MTV now, but they are still spending nearly two hours a day on social media. It’s probably not an earth shattering fact: this is more time devoted to online pursuits than their older counterparts, less than those younger. Gen X were early adopters in their own time – they were of course the ones who were at the right age when cordless phones and PCs rumbled into view all those many moons ago, and it will come as no surprise to find that there’s a link between habitual use of tech and what was in regular usage when a demographic came of age.

So, enter the Millennial. While they’re not complete digital natives like their Gen Z siblings, they’re so far into settled digital expat status that they’re applying for the digital equivalent of indefinite leave to remain, and are the subject of much head scratching among publishers everywhere. Most would have been in their teens or tweens when the internet finally showed it wasn’t going anywhere, so they know what’s what. For all that savvy though, surprisingly it’s this group whose social media usage is in decline (albeit it marginally – a decline of a minute per day to an average of 2 hours 38 over the past two years). The reason for the soul searching? It’s the juxtaposition of this digital attentiveness with a real urge to seek out real world experiences. For publishers, the challenge has therefore been to provide authenticity and engagement. 

And so to the true digital natives. Gen Z – for whom the second question upon going to a new place is often “do you have the WiFi code?” – spend an average of 2 hours 55 minutes on social media a day. They’ve crossed over from platforms like Facebook and Twitter and are more commonly found to more visually-orientated platforms, like YouTube and Instagram. 

According to Statista’s rankings, the number of monthly active users as of July 2019 roughly counts as following:

  • Facebook: 2.4 billion
  • YouTube: 2 billion
  • WhatsApp: 1.6 billion
  • Instagram: 1 billion
  • Twitter: 330 million

And if you want to view things through a social media minute lens, statistics reveal that in that time frame:

  • 41.6 million messages are sent over Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp
  • 347,222 people are scrolling Instagram 
  • 87,500 people post to Twitter
  • 4.5 million videos on YouTube are being watched

These numbers are indeed staggering, but consider what’s behind them. The sheer amount of content that has had to be created to drive those figures is mind boggling. And, it illuminates another point. Growth surely can’t be exponential. 

Have we reached the ceiling?

Alexis Ohanian, the co-founder of Reddit – a platform regarded as the ‘front page of the internet’ – has warned that “we’ve hit peak social” and that social networks such as Facebook and Twitter are near saturation point. 

Indeed, social network websites have been struggling with adding new users in Europe or the US – their most lucrative markets. For example, according to an article from The Globe and Mail, not only was Facebook unable to add any new users from North America during the second quarter of 2019, but it actually lost around a million users in Europe.

Things weren’t much rosier at Twitter HQ, where they lost a million active users in the same time period, and Snapchat reported its first decline since going public, with three million users – among them such high profile names such as at least one of the Kardashian/Jenner clan – deserting the platform in the second quarter, due in part to a poorly received redesign

According to another Statista’s article, over 4.3 billion people were active internet users as of July 2019, and of those, almost 3.5 billion are active social media users. Put another way, that means roughly 80% of people with an internet connection are also social media users. And if we weigh in the fact that people over 75 generally aren’t active on social channels as well as children under the age of 8, it’s not overstating by much when we say that almost everyone is on some kind of social media network now.

Although some of the slowdowns may be a temporary technical or design setback, longer-term trends point to a sobering reality for those tech juggernauts and their investors: the market is being filled to the brim. And what does this mean for news? Well, whether it’s fake, real, right, left, centrist, green, breaking, or slow news – social media has got it all these days. 

So what can newsrooms do to tackle this issue?

Considering the potential social media has to attract new audiences and strengthen relationships with existing ones, there is no use ignoring it. 

It comes down to a simple matter of trust. Indeed, people are, now, more than ever, quite eager to place their trust in a newsroom that understands their needs, is open for communication, and represents their online communities well. “What people seem to be clamoring for more and more now is community,” explains Ohanian, “and so whether that goes to private group chats – like your WhatsApp group, your Signal group – or new platforms that have emerged.” 

So, those pesky millennials we mentioned earlier, with their tendency to seek out authentic experiences are – it turns out – guiding the way. We know from our own research that loyalty is best measured as routinely highly engaged (read more on that here) behavior, and social is rife with opportunities to engage.

So, a few notable, successful examples of this: 

  • Be engaging. We recently did a piece on how great media names use social media – and cited examples such as The Economist who utilize Snapchat to engage the “tap generation” in a straightforward way, and The Washington’s Post decision to open up its doors to public profiles on Reddit – a social media platform known for public scrutiny and zero tolerance for self-promotion.
  • Be educational. Never forget that people like to learn new stuff. Being a source that delivers contextual content is part of building your audience’s trust. “If social media can be deployed to spread disinformation and sanitize hate,” Vox’s Aja Romano says, “it can also be deployed to spread accurate facts and bolster progressive voices for equality and freedom.”
  • Be a curator. Denmark’s Zetland is a great example of a newsroom that pairs a curated approach with an engagement journalism methodology that also helps to fine-tune the experience on social media. Their editorial staff investigate, report and publish stories driven by member requests, as well as diversifying further through social media and public live events.
  • Be transparent. Transparency includes being honest about mistakes, too. High-profile social media errors (and typos) have caused newsrooms some pain, particularly considering a tendency among some audiences to label media mistakes as “fake news.”

But the most important takeaway is this: know your audience. This is fundamental to mapping out new stories, identifying sources, and investigating public opinion. Through honest participation in ongoing conversations, and transparent processes, publishers can garner massive respect among their readership. 

To finish up

Publishers are certainly growing wary of social media because giants such as Facebook or Twitter have a history of prioritizing profit, submitting publishers to deals that don’t necessarily guarantee them the expected results.

And it is not just publishers who are cautious. An increasing number of social media users feel the need to disconnect because the content they are being served is saturating their feeds. Worse though is that the more time you spend on your feed, the more behavioral data you are creating for advertisers to bombard you with. This way, users are locked in a self-perpetuating feedback loop that cuts them off from fresh and relevant information.

But the content saturation on social media might also be a good thing. Remember, readers are not necessarily disengaging because of content overload (though they’d have our sympathies if that were the case). They want to find havens on social media where quality journalism is being served (and they want it served like a well-mixed cocktail with facts checked and an umbrella on top). 

After all, despite the concerns surrounding the inaccuracy and saturation of news on social media, these platforms are a vital part of our ecosystem. Unlike watching the news on TV, social enables interaction and discussion. The immediacy and agency is what makes it so appealing. 

And, of course, the ‘social’ in social media doesn’t simply refer to the type of platforms, but rather to the way they’re used. This doesn’t just mean from the user end, either. As evidenced by The Washington Post’s Reddit adventures, the conversation needs to go both ways. 

Is social media the best approach to reach out and expand an audience? It’s definitely up there. Is it the most reliable approach? Not necessarily. But, it’s there and there are still rewards for those who are prepared to get creative and inclusive with the communities they are meant to be serving.

Remember, social media may be a double-edged sword, but it’s a useful sword nonetheless, especially to those who know how to wield it. 

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