Influencers lead news debates in youth-focussed social networks, leaving journalists in the shade

Credit: Courtesy Reuters Instutute

Instagram has long had a reputation as a place to escape from the “real” world, with a carefully curated feed of helpful ideas, videos, and photos. But over the past year, Instagram, along with other youth-focused social platforms like Snapchat and TikTok, has become rife with heated discussions about politics, race, and other social justice issues — along with updates about the coronavirus pandemic. Often driving these debates is not a journalist, but rather the celebrities, influencers, and creators who dominate online social spaces — from lifestyle bloggers to reality TV personalities.

Over the past few years, our Digital News Report has documented the growing reliance of young people on social media when it comes to news. Four in ten (40 percent) of 18-24 year olds say social media is the main source of news, with an average of 46 countries.

We’ve also documented how these groups spend less time with networks like Facebook and more time with visual networks like Instagram, Snapchat and now TikTok. More than a quarter of 18-24 year olds say they access news on Instagram every week and about one in ten access news on TikTok, a network that was previously completely free of political content.

None of this means that young people necessarily go to these networks in search of news. Our data shows that when it comes to news, fun and entertainment are the main drivers. The news is often episodic – in sharp contrast to Twitter, which is seen as a destination for the latest news and commentary.

Q12_Social_motivations. You said you use [social network] For news… what’s the main reason you use it [social network] for news? Base: Everyone using Twitter/Facebook/YouTube/Instagram/Snapchat/TikTok for news across all markets: 6,338/28,762/15,663/6,570/924/1,500. Courtesy RISJ.

But this extraordinary year of news has changed attitudes and expectations. Young respondents in our survey spoke about how networks like Instagram helped inform them or shape their opinions on stories as diverse as the coronavirus, climate change, the storming of the Capitol, and the consequences of the murder of George Floyd – from countries as diverse as Nigeria, Sweden, Brazil and the United States.

In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, Instagram has become a platform for widespread conversations about racism in the United States. Many influencers on social media have broken down on safe topics such as food, music and fashion and talked about their own experiences of racial discrimination on the one hand or white privilege on the other.

Elsewhere, young activists around the world have embraced a host of networks including Instagram, TikTok and YouTube to stage protests against the ruling class. In Peru, protests against corruption centered around the hashtag semetieronconlaeneracionequivocada (They messed with the wrong generation). In Thailand, student-led pro-democracy protests fueled by social media – including TikTok – have helped open up a media that has long been reluctant to criticize the authorities. In many cases, authorities seem to have been shocked by platforms they don’t understand – with their distinct language of memes, emojis, and hashtags.

Ordinary people and influencers get the most attention when it comes to news

While journalists and media companies often lead the conversations on news topics when it comes to Twitter and Facebook, they struggle for attention on Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok. Here, celebrities or other social influencers tend to get the most attention when it comes to the news – and so do regular people. Politicians are attracting less attention as well, although we did find a large number of respondents following posts for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) who has served viral content on both Instagram and TikTok over the past year. It can be difficult to draw the line between activist, politician and celebrity with Greta Thunberg also widely cited as someone they have listened to about climate change in different countries around the world.

Q12_Social_sources. You said you use [social platform] For news…when it comes to news [social platform] Which of these do you pay the most attention in general? Rule – All Markets Twitter = 6338, Facebook = 28.766, YouTube = 15667, Instagram = 6571, Snapchat = 925, TikTok = 1500. Courtesy RISJ

Our research indicates that much of the news circulating on Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok is related to topics such as health, fashion, and sex rather than to “traditional” topics, such as politics or economics. Influencers often have strong opinions on these topics and frequently criticize the media for their unfair treatment of women or LGBT people.

“The influencers and comedians on social media that I follow have a strong opinion, which is a good thing. Because of the number of people out there [on social networks]”You get better sources to listen to both sides of the story,” said a 19-year-old Instagram user in India.

But these opinions can often get very hot. During the recent conflict between Israel and Palestine, supermodel Bella Hadid sparked a row over an Instagram post that suggested Israel was not a country but a land settled by colonists — leading to accusations of anti-Semitism and a social media struggle with the Israeli government.

In fact, politicians are increasingly finding that they need to take social media seriously. Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford has used Instagram (15 million followers) and Twitter to build support to extend free school meals to poor students during the holidays. Faced with this attack, Prime Minister Boris Johnson (1.4 million followers on Instagram) was forced to back off after initially opposing the initiative.

On the other hand, many are concerned about the reliability and nature of information that young people may get from personalities in social media. Madonna and Lewis Hamilton were among the celebrities accused of spreading conspiracy theories about the Corona virus due to the stories they shared via Instagram or other networks.

Against this background, the World Health Organization created a 20-year-old CGI (computer-generated) influencer called Knox Frost to get “accurate and audited information” about covid-19 for young people. The Instagram account of nearly 1 million followers is posting about safety from the Corona virus. Meanwhile, the British government has recruited and pushed several social media influencers and reality TV stars to promote the national testing and tracking system and claimed to have reached more than 7 million people in its target group.

The role of journalists?

Can journalists and news organizations play a more prominent role on these networks and provide more reliable information? Or are these spaces inappropriate to provide the background and context for complex and nuanced stories such as the Israeli-Palestinian crisis?

Social media is definitely a complex space to navigate and many publishers have been wary about falling into it. But others think it’s important to get involved in networks where young people spend a lot of their time – and find ways to adapt the style and format of the news to these informal spaces.

Traditional publishers such as economic And Le Monde Have some success in short for visual content on Instagram and Snapchat respectively while Washington Post TikTok was used, among other things, to encourage young people to vote. BBC correspondent Sophia Smith-Galler pioneered experimental storytelling on TikTok, such as viral sea shanties about the closing of the Suez Canal by a container ship, and German public broadcaster ARD created a quirky TikTok presence for its daily news program Tagesschau.

New youth-oriented networks present a major challenge to the mainstream media. News is largely episodic and expectations of flashy, visual, and engaging content don’t always come naturally to newsrooms staffed by older journalists with an emphasis on traditional formats. But with serious news now being widely discussed in networks like Instagram and TikTok, the participation of journalists can help bring more reliable content and fresh perspectives to these discussions.

Nick Newman is the lead author and Simg Andy is a co-author of the accessible Reuters Institute News Report here

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