But as reliance on social media for news increases, so do concerns about the spread of misinformation — even from the people turning to social media in the first place.
Fifty-six percent said they were concerned about what was real and what was fake online, and 40 percent said they were concerned about misinformation on social media, according to the report.
Misinformation has plagued social media sites since they were created, and concerns about the spread of fake or misleading information has grown as the social networks have added millions of users and easier ways to quickly share posts. Misleading posts spread across the sites perhaps most prominently during the 2016 election and more recently during the coronavirus pandemic and as protests have spread across the United States after George Floyd’s killing. Incorrect reports about communication blackouts and widespread unrest in the District spread across Twitter earlier this month.
Social media companies have deployed thousands of content moderators and artificial-intelligence bots to try to cut down on the extent of misinformation, but it continues to spread in moments of unrest or uncertainty. During the onset of the pandemic this spring, companies started labeling or removing posts with misleading information about the coronavirus. But independent fact-checkers found those posts still persisted across the sites, especially on Twitter.
Misinformation can be especially tough to combat on private messaging services, such as WhatsApp, where information is visible only to users in specific groups and is therefore harder for companies to police. WhatsApp has worked to limit the number of times a specific post can be shared and to label posts that have been forwarded, but misinformation about the coronavirus still flooded the encrypted messaging service in early March.
“This is a particular worry because false information tends to be less visible and can be harder to counter in these private and encrypted networks,” the authors of the Reuters report wrote of people’s growing use and wariness about WhatsApp.
Facebook, the parent company of WhatsApp and Instagram, said early this year it would remove misleading information about the coronavirus. Just a few months later, the huge social media company has been hit with mounting criticism over its decision to leave up remarks from President Trump that included a reference to “THUGS” in reference to unrest in Minneapolis.
The Reuters Digital News Report found that people are actually most concerned about misinformation spreading from domestic politicians, and a majority said social networks should ban misleading political advertisements. But just over half said it is still important for them to learn when politicians make misleading claims, suggesting they want news organizations to give them relevant information to make up their own minds.
The study surveyed people across six countries (U.S., United Kingdom, Germany, Spain, Argentina and South Korea) about their coronavirus news-consumption habits in early April as an addition to the report’s general news-industry study, which was completed in January before the pandemic ramped up.
In the pre-pandemic study, it was clear that Instagram, the photo-sharing social media site owned by Facebook, is on the rise. Instagram is used for news twice as much as it was in 2018, and it has become such a popular news source that the study predicts it could overtake the real-time information-sharing site Twitter next year.
The pervasiveness of misinformation shadows the growing reliance on social media as a news source. It’s also troubling for traditional news sources, which produce much of the news shared on social media but are less likely than in years past to be where people look for news, the study found.
“Our report shows that younger users, especially those now coming into adulthood, are even less connected with news brands and more dependent on social media,” the report authors wrote.
During the pandemic, people turned back slightly to traditional news sources, including TV, to get news. But social media also saw a lift. Twenty-four percent said they got news about the pandemic from WhatsApp. In the United States, 26 percent said they had used Instagram to get news about the coronavirus during the week before they were surveyed.
Instagram now reaches 11 percent of people globally for news each week, compared with 12 percent for Twitter. Facebook still reigns in the social media news market, at 36 percent, followed by Google-owned YouTube at 21 percent.