News, Trust, and Social Media: Signals from a 2016 Echelon Insights Poll

Caveat: The article cited in this post was written by Echelon Insights for Buzzfeed and is strongly promotional on its behalf. I include it here only because it provides another data point on the dominance of social media among younger demographics, especially concerning the discovery, consumption, and sharing of news. 

There’s nothing surprising in the results of a 2016 study conducted for Buzzfeed by Echelon Insights and Hart Research. It shows that the majority of Americans who were likely voters in 2016 were under the age of 50, and that about half of them share news links on social media every week. Echelon says “social media is the primary way our 18-49 year old respondents discover news online.”

chart showing news sources for young likely voters
Chart from Echelon Insights/Hart Research

Social media sources comprised 33 percent of online news sources in this key age group, followed by search engines at 23 percent. Note that direct visits to news websites trails at 17 percent, and discovery of news stories by email is only 7 percent.

OK so we know social media was a huge factor in how at least half of American voters got their news in 2016. Again nothing new in this study.

But the impact of news isn’t just about sources; it’s also about trust. When one of your Facebook friends shares a story, it’s not coming from Facebook, it’s coming from your friend. By posting the article, your friend is asserting that the information is trustworthy and important. And if you trust your friend, you will be more likely to accept the information without critical analysis.

“Information about politics and current affairs shared by a friend that a respondent trusts and respects is rated trustworthy by 57%, versus just 4% who distrust it. This compares to a trust/distrust ratio of 48% to 12% for other forms of news delivery we tested.” ~ Echelon research

There’s plenty of other research that supports the idea that we are strongly influenced by our friends, and the closer they are the stronger the influence. What is new, since at least 2012 and more pronounced each year, is our connections with friends on social media platforms.

Both Echelon Insights and Hart Research are in the business of political messaging strategies based on analytics. As a commercial digital news organization, Buzzfeed is among the leaders in leveraging audience insights to improve its market position and revenues. We should note that this study supports the business interests of all three organizations.

That said, the results of this study conform with a growing body of other research that shows a massive shift in how people discover news, and how trust works in a media system increasingly dominated by social media platforms.