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The new flow of news : how social network sites transform news organization and citizens political behavior

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How social networks transform news and citizens’ political behaviour

Social media sites are radically changing the flow of news, and a new project analysed what effects this may be having on readers’ thoughts and actions.

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There is a big change under way in the news industry. More consumers are turning away from traditional news sources and sourcing their news from social network sites (SNSs). In response, the news industry has started adopting SNSs into their platforms, essentially transforming news into a social product. To understand the potential impacts of this shift on news production and readers’ political behaviour, the SNSNEWS project, which was funded by the European Research Council, analysed news creation and distribution through a model based on network logic. “What was once motivated primarily by the value of information is now largely driven by social factors. This shift applies to both audiences and news organisations,” says Shira Dvir Gvirsman, professor in Communication Studies at Tel Aviv University and SNSNEWS project coordinator.

The social transformation of news

The SNS team ran a series of interviews and surveys to understand how behaviours and production are changing, and analysed the results through a statistical model. Gvirsman notes that the analysis was based mostly on the Israeli news market, so there should be some caution in interpreting the results. “Nonetheless, it is evident that news organisations are grappling with challenges arising from the dominance of platforms,” she adds. “In their efforts to adapt, they often compromise their core values and editorial guidelines.” During interviews, one editor mentioned that one of their most successful posts in terms of engagement was about a shortage of ketchup at McDonald’s, noting that it served as a way for people to connect with each other. “It became a way to reminisce and say, ‘Hey, remember the time we went to McDonald’s and they were out of ketchup?’,” explains Gvirsman. “While this anecdote offers insights into how people share news, a problem arises when news organisations are compelled to create such posts solely for the purpose of driving engagement and web traffic.” In one survey ranking usage and perceived quality of various platforms such as Facebook, TikTok and Twitter for news consumption, the results clearly showed a preference for platforms that provide users with a more social experience and a stronger sense of connection.

How social algorithms alter news

In a study yet to be published, the team tracked 40 English-speaking news organisations over two years. They found that the volume of news stories centred around a given topic was influenced by audience engagement on social media platforms. “What truly surprised me was that editors are increasingly motivated to outperform algorithms and generate traffic,” says Gvirsman. “In this pursuit, they tend to wield their audience as a tool in their battle against the algorithm, placing the algorithm, rather than the audience, at the heart of editorial decisions.”

Surprising effects on political content

The project also found instances where competing news organisations hosted each other’s content, including those with opposing political views. “This unconventional situation stems from the evolving platform-like business model,” remarks Gvirsman. The most surprising revelation on audience behaviour was that users preferred sites with lower levels of personalisation. “My initial expectation was that users would favour tailored news experiences,” adds Gvirsman. “Instead, users displayed a preference for platforms that facilitated the broader dissemination of news to a wider audience.”


SNSNEWS, news, industry, social network sites, media, organisations, political, content, algorithms

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