Digital technologies have radically changed the consumption of information. News is available 24/7 and everywhere, and there is a wide variety of news sources. It’s not just newspapers that have gone online or news platforms that have emerged, social media such as Facebook and WhatsApp also provide our daily news. Young citizens in particular are increasingly consuming their news online. This digital evolution has made information more personal and it is less and less common for people to read the same sources of information. Our own social connections send us all kinds of news, and algorithms provide us with news aligned with what they know about us.
At the same time, being informed about political and social issues is important for a well-functioning democracy. This is why some academics are optimistic about these new developments, assuming that they contribute to this good functioning because one can easily find information which, moreover, seems really interesting to us. In contrast, other academics warn of a growing gap due to “filter bubbles”: those interested in politics are much better informed about political issues.
Communications scientist Susan Vermeer joins this debate by finding answers to the question: what news is consumed by whom, and how (in what context)? It establishes that both sides of the debate are to some extent right. Yes, the gap between citizens who read political news and citizens who choose entertainment is widening. But digital platforms also strengthen the political engagement of citizens, especially young people.
Citizens are more selective in their information consumption
Since television is still an important source of political information – as the COVID-19 crisis demonstrated – Vermeer began by researching the consumption of information via television. To this end, it has collected audience measurement data (from over 1,700 Dutch households and nearly 4,000 viewers) which provides information on audience figures: who watches a particular channel, when and for How long. Next, Vermeer focused on the online world. It monitored the online behavior of Dutch users using a browser plug-in. This generated a dataset of over a million web pages from 175 websites (news sites, search engines, and social media) that provide insight into the type of news being searched and retrieved.
Vermeer concludes that citizens have become more selective in their information consumption and that individual preferences, such as political interests and ideology, play a crucial role in information consumption. “Citizens more interested in politics consume more political information, and citizens less interested in politics prefer more entertainment-oriented information. This line of demarcation seems to be widening in a digital society, ”says Vermeer.
WhatsApp can involve young people in political matters
In addition, Vermeer conducted an experiment with young adults in six Dutch secondary schools to measure the effects of sharing and discussing political news using digital technology. From there, she concludes that online platforms, such as WhatsApp, are an important medium for involving young adults in political and social issues. “Social connections, friends and family, here have a major influence on what news young people encounter online and, in a positive way, how they react to it,” concludes Vermeer.
Online platforms also contribute to political interest
Finally, Vermeer postulates a link between the consumption of information on the one hand and political interest and trust in the media on the other. Importantly, the consumption of traditional news media seems to be strongly correlated with this interest and confidence, but in addition, the consumption of, for example, mobile news applications is correlated with political interest. “Thus, online platforms can have a positive impact on society,” concludes Vermeer. “Even if the effects are small, they contribute to citizens’ interest and interaction with political news.”
Useful starting points
Vermeer concludes that this research on information consumption provides useful starting points for reaching a better understanding of how people consume information in the digital society. “To some extent, this research confirms the pessimistic picture about filter bubbles and that citizens with a strong political interest consume political news more often, and that this widens the gap with citizens who are less politically interested.”
But according to her, research also shows that digital technologies and platforms can help increase the political engagement of citizens. “Citizens not only have access to a wide range of information sources, they also use them,” says Vermeer. “Digital platforms can be a resource for involving young citizens in political and social issues. “
Susan Vermeer, ‘News for you! News consumption in the digital society ”, thesis director: Prof. CH de Vreese, co-directors: Dr DC Trilling and Dr S. Kruikemeier
Time and place
Friday 19 November, 2:00 p.m., Auditorium (Lutherse Kerk), Amsterdam