Nieman Foundation at Harvard
You’re more likely to believe fake news shared by someone you barely know than by your best friend
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July 19, 2017, 9 a.m.

British news consumers who get news via social media or search platforms are more likely to remember the platform where they accessed a particular story rather than the outlet that originally published it, according to a study out Wednesday from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford.

Just 37 percent of users who came from search, and 47 percent of those who found a story via social media, could correctly name the news organization that published it (2 days later). By comparison, 81 percent of users who directly arrived on a story could later recall where it was published.

Meanwhile, 57 percent of users could remember that they found a story via search and 67 percent recalled accessing stories from social sources — with 70 percent of those who found a story on Facebook recalling their path and 60 percent for Twitter.

“The finding that people are more likely to remember the platform where they found the content (e.g. Facebook), rather than the news brand that created the content, will be troubling for many publishers,” study authors Antonis Kalogeropoulos and Nic Newman wrote.

“Some weaker brands may be forced to re-evaluate the use of these platforms for marketing — or click-through — and develop alternative approaches. Others may be reassured that their strong brands do already cut through in a distributed world, giving greater confidence in future negotiations with platforms around existing and new models.”

Together with YouGov, a market research company, the Reuters Institute tracked thousands of desktop internet users in the U.K. and then followed up with some of them within 48 hours to ask what they could remember about what they saw online.

The Pew Research Center has also conducted similar research and found that U.S. adults could recall the source of a news link 56 percent of the time on average. (Before you go saying that Americans are better than Brits at remembering where they get their news, you should know that Pew used a different methodology — it asked users about news they got online within the past two hours, and it had no way of verifying the results.)

The Reuters Institute study found that orgs with strong brand identity can cut through the noise online. When accessed via search, BBC News, The Guardian, and The Telegraph were the most correctly identified outlets, the Reuters Institute study found.

On social, BuzzFeed jumped into the top three, taking the second spot of most-correctly recognized. The Guardian was first and BBC third.

“BuzzFeed has built its reputation producing distinctive content that is designed specifically for Facebook and other distributed platforms,” Kalogeropoulos and Newman wrote. “Its strong branding (icons, colors, and emojis) and content formats (videos, quizzes, and lists) have enabled the brand to be well recognized, especially with its target under-35 demographic.”

Additionally, news consumers who accessed stories from news sites that they regularly read were much more likely to remember the source. Eighty percent of regular readers who came from social and 72 percent who came from search recalled the outlet where they accessed the story.

“This suggests that low attribution in distributed platforms could be more closely related to weak levels of pre-existing engagement than the impact of the platform itself,” the authors wrote. “Having said that, it could be argued that the weakness of many existing publisher relationships with consumers is partly a consequence of the shift to the discovery of content via third parties and the amount of time spent with platforms like Facebook.”

The level of recall also depended on the type of coverage. The sources of political news and weird news were most likely to be correctly remembered. “The high recognition for weird news may relate to high recognition for BuzzFeed, which was the source of many of these stories,” the study said.

Fifty-nine percent of search and social users were able to correctly attribute opinion pieces, while explainers were identified properly just 27 percent of the time.

Given the search-heavy nature of explainers that are often identical — they typically focus on stories that are in the news — Kalogeropoulos and Newman hypothesized that their formulaic nature made them difficult to differentiate.

“Findings from news sites in the resulting pages show a list of almost identical headlines from a wide range of U.K. news outlets,” they wrote. “If it is hard to distinguish between the headlines and the snippets, it is perhaps not surprising that the brand is less identifiable.”

Finally, there may be hope for the future. Users under 35, who are typically much more fluent in social media and the Internet than their elders, were much more adept at remembering a story’s source than older users.

The full study is available here.

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