The key challenge in the fight against misinformation is an audience increasingly disconnected from quality news

What does our data say about the prevalence of misinformation in today’s media ecosystem?
The key challenge in the fight against misinformation is an audience increasingly disconnected from quality news
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The news of the world rolled past him as carriages past an old remote house,” writes Joseph Roth about Mendel Singer, the battered protagonist of Job. The novel is an inspiring fable with Biblical resonances about an old Jewish man who loses all hope after suffering an unspeakable tragedy before recovering it miraculously at the end of the book. 

Today many audiences have the same experience as Mendel Singer. Many prefer to focus on their own affairs and stay away from a news ecosystem which often despises or ignores disadvantaged communities, focuses on a depressing agenda, serves them images of death and destruction, and amplifies the loudest voices in public debates. 

These are not abstract concerns, but trends confirmed by survey data. At the Reuters Institute, we’ve been researching news consumption in dozens of markets for more than a decade. This survey data, which tracks a remarkable transformation, is the basis of the Digital News Report, which now covers 46 markets around the world. Anyone aiming to promote information integrity needs to know how audiences consume information in 2023. 

More on the Forum Network: Seeing the Disinformation Forest Through the Trees: How to Begin Cleaning Up the Polluted Information Environment by Director, Partnership for Countering Influence Operations & Professor, Politics and International Affairs, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace & Princeton University

Calls grow louder to regulate artificial intelligence, counter disinformation, and social media. But how can democracies govern the information environment if they don’t know how it affects people’s thinking and behaviour?

Many things have changed in terms of news consumption in the last decade. Fewer people get their news from print, laptops and linear television. Many get informed on their smartphones through news sites and social apps. 

In an online environment often marked by doom-scrolling and polarisation, audiences have grown both less trusting and more apathetic. Only 40% trust the news most of the time and 36% avoid it on purpose, either to protect themselves from depressing headlines and to avoid increasing toxicity. These are just averages for the countries we covered. News avoidance is much higher in Bulgaria (57%) and trust is much lower in Hungary (25%) and Greece (19%). 

Apathy and distrust go hand in hand with a certain loss of appetite for news, especially in countries going through political turmoil. In the last few years, we’ve seen interest plummeting by 34 points in Spain and Argentina and by 27 points in the UK

The connection between audiences and news organisations is fraying too. Across our global sample, only 22% say they start their news journeys with a news site or a news app, a percentage that’s 10 points lower than it was in 2018 and much lower in countries like Peru (10%) and the Philippines (8%).

This growing disconnection between audiences and news organisations is almost entirely driven by the young. 

Take the UK as an example. In 2018 around half of our respondents in all age groups accessed online news by going to news sites or news apps. This picture had changed dramatically by 2023: while 52% of people over 35 still went directly to news websites, only 24% of people under 25 did. The reason behind this drop is young people’s enthusiastic embrace of news on social media. Up to 41% now use these platforms as their main source of news, up from 18% in 2015.

It’s not that younger audiences are deserting legacy news organisations. They are changing social media too. As Facebook’s influence on news consumption wanes, video-led platforms such as YouTube, Instagram and TikTok are winning over young people. 

News organisations are struggling to get a foothold in this novel news ecosystem, which is growing more political and remains mostly dominated by influencers, activists and amateurs. 

None of those networks is growing faster than TikTok. Up to 44% of 18-24s across markets use it for any purpose and 20% use it for news. This platform is growing even faster in Asia and Latin America. Around 30% across ages use it for news in Kenya, Thailand and Peru. 

News organisations are struggling to get a foothold in this novel news ecosystem, which is growing more political and remains mostly dominated by influencers, activists and amateurs. 

Many audiences are seeing this distributed news ecosystem as a space marked by hate and toxicity, and they are staying away from it. Only a fifth of our respondents post or comment online about news topics, with almost half of them saying they are not participating at all. 

In my native Spain, a country where hyperpartisan voices have grown increasingly prominent, the proportion of people sharing a news story on social media has gone down from 34% to 19% in the last five years. Our report documents similar falls in the UK and the US.

This is the environment we have to keep in mind when discussing how to protect information integrity, a problem exacerbated by some of these changes and too complex to be solved by governments, tech companies or journalists alone.  

What does our data say about the prevalence of misinformation in today’s media ecosystem? Despite the jeremiads of so many pundits, our data suggests that concerns about misinformation have remained stable since 2018 in most of the countries covered by the report. 

Across the 46 markets we cover, 56% say they are concerned about what is real and what is fake on the internet when it comes to news. Numbers vary widely by country and by region, with Africa (77%) and Latin America (62%) showing the highest percentages. Those who mainly get their news from social media are more concerned (64%) than those who don’t use social media at all (50%). 

Concerns vary widely across countries and demographics. According to an analysis recently published by researcher Sacha Altay, women, more educated, older, and right-wing respondents are more likely to be concerned. Countries with lower GDP per capita, higher levels of corruption and lower levels of press freedom tend to show higher concerns. Audiences in these countries are more concerned about messaging apps than about any other channel, and more about misleading narratives coming from their own governments than about any actions from foreign states. 

It’s important to stress that concern is not the same as exposure. In fact, our 2018 survey showed a clear mismatch between both. Up to 58% worried about fabricated or ‘made up’ news, but only 26% said they were exposed to that kind of content. Our data also suggests that audiences are more concerned about sloppy journalism, clickbait headlines and politicians twisting facts than about foreign influence operations or deep fakes. 

Policy-makers should keep in mind that audiences also perceive misinformation as an offline problem. Our figures show very little difference in self-reported exposure to misleading content between those that mainly consume news offline and those that mainly consume news online. In the US, self-reported exposure to completely made-up news stories is actually more widespread among those who mainly consume news offline, a stat partly driven by right-wing TV audiences who think left-wing cable channels are spreading “fake news.”

We’ve seen how audiences access news today, how they see online spaces and what they think of misinformation. But what do they think should be done to tackle the problem? 

When asked in 2018, most of our global sample said media companies, tech platforms and governments should do more to separate what’s real and fake on the internet, which suggests that audiences understand this issue requires solutions that involve several stakeholders and it won’t be solved by one actor alone. However, the most literate audiences were the most sensitive to the risks of government intervention, an attitude that may be a reaction to so many recent examples of legislative overreach. 

As we head for a year with crucial elections in Mexico, India, the European Union and the United States, it’s key to keep an eye on new developments such as the impact of generative AI. But it’s even more important to remember that the main problem our news ecosystems face in most countries is not polarisation, echo chambers or foreign influence operations but an audience increasingly disconnected from quality journalism and left out by paywalls, news avoidance and distrust.  

If news rolls past audiences as carriages past an old remote house, malicious actors will fill the void and democracy will suffer. If governments work with academics, tech companies and news organisations to create an environment in which independent professional journalism can flourish, our democracies will flourish too. 

Learn more about OECD event: Tackling disinformation: Strengthening democracy through information integrity

This conference will bring together representatives from government, digital platforms, media, academia and civil society to identify effective policy responses to the urgent challenges our democracies face in the information space. Conversations will focus on government architecture and coordination mechanisms, efforts to build societal resilience, and regulatory responses. By focusing on tangible questions around what works and why, the conference will also set the stage for working toward OECD guidelines on the issue and provide the occasion to discuss expanding the OECD DIS/MIS Resource Hub’s engagement and reach.

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