Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Contrary to common views, use of social media and online portals fosters more visits to news sites and a greater variety of news sites visited

How social network sites and other online intermediaries increase exposure to news. Michael Scharkow, Frank Mangold, Sebastian Stier, and Johannes Breuer. PNAS February 11, 2020 117 (6) 2761-2763; January 27, 2020.

Abstract: Research has prominently assumed that social media and web portals that aggregate news restrict the diversity of content that users are exposed to by tailoring news diets toward the users’ preferences. In our empirical test of this argument, we apply a random-effects within–between model to two large representative datasets of individual web browsing histories. This approach allows us to better encapsulate the effects of social media and other intermediaries on news exposure. We find strong evidence that intermediaries foster more varied online news diets. The results call into question fears about the vanishing potential for incidental news exposure in digital media environments.

Keywords: news exposureonline media useweb tracking data

People can come across news and other internet offerings in a variety of ways, for example, by visiting their favorite websites, using search engines, or following recommendations from contacts on social media (1). These routes do not necessarily lead people to the same venues. While traditionally considered as an important ingredient of well-functioning democratic societies, getting news as a byproduct of other media-related activities has been assumed to wane in the online sphere. Intermediaries like social networking sites (SNS) and search engines are regarded with particular suspicion, often criticized for fostering news avoidance and selective exposure (2). This assumption has been, perhaps most prominently, ingrained in the “filter bubble” thesis, positing that search and recommendation algorithms bias news diets toward users’ preferences and, thus, decrease content diversity (3). On the other hand, incidental news exposure (INE) due to other online activities has received much scholarly attention for several decades (4). Contrary to widely held assumptions, recent INE research found that SNS users have more rather than less diverse news diets than nonusers. For example, one study showed that SNS users consumed almost twice the number of news outlets in the previous week as did nonusers (2). Similar results emerged regarding the use of web aggregators (portals) and search engines, although people may use search engines in a more goal-driven fashion compared to SNS (1).

In previous studies, SNS-based news exposure was typically measured by asking respondents whether they are (unintentionally) exposed to news via social media. Like many survey studies, this approach naturally suffers from the limited accuracy and reliability of self-reports (5). More specifically, recent work has criticized self-report measures for being biased toward active news choices and routine use (6) and being particularly inaccurate when people access news via intermediaries (7). To alleviate these limitations, some studies have used log data to estimate the quantity and quality of online news exposure, for example, in terms of exposure to cross-cutting news (8, 9). However, these studies have focused only on single social media platforms instead of different intermediary routes to news. Other recent studies (1, 10) have traced direct and indirect pathways to online news using browser logs, but have not distinguished nonregular—and therefore possibly incidental—news exposure from regular, typically more intentional or routinized forms of news consumption online. In other words, the question whether visiting SNS more often (than usual) actually leads to more varied news exposure (than usual) essentially remains unanswered. This problem concerns almost all studies on the use and effects of online media, and has received considerable attention in recent communication research (11). We argue that positive within-person effects of visiting intermediary sites on online news exposure are a necessary (although not sufficient, since even nonregular visits could be intentional) precondition for INE, and, therefore, testing for such effects is a useful endeavor. We address this question using a statistical model that distinguishes between stable between-person differences and within-person effects, that is, the random-effects within–between (REWB) model (12). Investigating within-person effects has additional value by safeguarding causal inferences against bias due to (previously) unmeasured person-level confounders. We apply the REWB model to two large, representative tracking datasets of individual-level browsing behavior in Germany, collected independently in 2012 and 2018. This allows us not only to compare within- and between-person effects but also to analyze possible changes in the effects of SNS (Facebook, Twitter) and intermediaries (Google, web portals) over recent years. Specifically, we investigate their effects on the amount and variety of online news exposure. Using this approach enables us to replicate and extend two recent survey studies (2, 13) that looked at the effects of SNS, web portals, and search engines on 1) overall online news exposure and 2) the diversity of people’s online news diets.

We used large-scale observational data to avoid the limited reliability and validity of self-reports on news exposure. Leveraging the potential of such data with the REWB model, our study provides strong evidence that getting more and more-diverse news as a consequence of other media-related activities is a common phenomenon in the online sphere. The findings contradict widely held concerns that social media and web portals specifically contribute to news avoidance and restrict the diversity of news diets. Note that we followed previous studies and measured the variety of news diets by counting the number of outlets visited. Given the overall low frequency of news visits, intermediaries add diversity to the news diets of the large majority of participants with a small news repertoire (2). While we cannot say that outlet variety always equals viewpoint variety, prior research has shown that using a larger number of online news sources typically translates into more-diverse overall news exposure (15). In contrast to previous studies (9, 10), we cannot quantify diversity in terms of cross-cutting exposure, but note that previous studies have shown little evidence for strong partisan alignments of news audiences in Germany (16) on the outlet level, so that variety would have to be measured on the level of individual news items, which requires URL-level tracking and content analysis data. In addition, future combinations of web tracking with experience sampling surveys are needed to disentangle in what instances nonregular news use is entirely nonintentional and how the respective contents specifically affect the diversity in news diets.

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