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April 13, 2018, 9:30 a.m.
Audience & Social

People read news differently (i.e., worse) on phones than they do on desktop, new research suggests

Plus: A proposal to let Facebook users come up with “formulas” for their own News Feeds, and what happens to fake news when it isn’t profitable anymore?

The growing stream of reporting on and data about fake news, misinformation, partisan content, and news literacy is hard to keep up with. This weekly roundup offers the highlights of what you might have missed.

People seem to pay better attention to news presented on desktop than on mobile. What changes as people read more news on mobile than desktop? A new paper by Texas A&M’s Johanna Dunaway, Kathleen Searles, Mingxiao Sui, and Newly Paul, published in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication (h/t Jane Elizabeth) looks at this:

We argue that attention to news on mobile devices such as tablets and smartphones is not the same as attention to news for those on computers. Our research uses eye tracking in two lab experiments to capture the effects of mobile device use on news attention. We also conduct a large-scale study of web traffic data to provide further evidence that news attention is significantly different across computers and mobile devices.

How they did it:

Specifically, we operationalize attention to news stories by measuring the time participants spend with their eyes fixated, or engaged in focussed visual attention, on the body of the news story. We also measure visual attention to linked content because it is a precursor to clicking behavior, and click-through rates are a widely-used metric for audience engagement with digital media. We operationalize attention to news links in three ways: (a) duration of fixation on links embedded in news story, (b) number of fixations on embedded news links, and (c) a dichotomous measure of whether participants fixate on links at all. Our lab studies reveal that, on average, people spend less time on news story content, and are less likely to notice links when they are on tablets and smartphones relative to computers.

Owning a mobile device can increase access to news, the authors write. But it doesn’t necessarily increase attention to news.

The results we present here should give the news industry pause: readers on mobile devices may spend less time on their sites and be less focussed on their content (Molyneux, 2017). Our results also point to the need to go beyond user-experience testing to include social scientific outcomes. The rush to monetize mobile news delivery may exacerbate the costs of information processing on mobile devices. Building economic value into mobile news may inadvertently decrease its democratic value.

Let Facebook users write their own formulas for what they want to see in their News Feeds. That’s an idea shared by Harvard professor Jonathan Zittrain at a talk this week as part of Shorenstein and Northeastern’s ongoing speaker series on misinformation. He suggests that Facebook users could choose what they want to see prioritized in their feeds, creating their own “formulas” or “recipes”. Zittrain described the idea in a New York Times op-ed this past week:

Facebook should allow its users to write and share their own formulas for how their news feeds should be populated, rather than making a one-size-fits-all decision that, say, updates from friends and family are to be prioritized over news.

Users could even choose to choose to subscribe to feeds curated by others — whether the curators are the NRA or Ralph Nader. “I think this could easily worsen the filter-bubble problem and likely would,” he said. “My feeling is that is a different problem, different but overlapping, from the misinformation problem. I think there are a lot of people out there that do not want to be misinformed,” and that giving them the chance to select what they see could reduce misinformation even as it pushes people farther into a world where they see what they want to see.

He also suggested allowing people to opt in to updates on stories that they’ve liked or shared, so that they know if those stories end up being fake. As for who’d be in charge of providing those updates, he suggests librarians; the ALA “has been pitched” and is enthusiastic, Facebook less so. “If we had a realm in which people could choose their feed recipe, there would be a natural way to have some feeds that emphasize an extra button or variable to relate to” interest in these updates.

“We’ve known for a long time that this would turn into a labor of love.” Construction-worker-and-dad-of-three-turned-fake-news-publisher profiled by the Boston Globe says his traffic and ad dollars have been disappearing since last summer, then claims, “We’ve known for a long time that this would turn into a labor of love, and we’ll gladly volunteer to keep doing it.”

Illustration from L.M. Glackens’ The Yellow Press (1910) via The Public Domain Review.

Laura Hazard Owen is the editor of Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email ( or Twitter DM (@laurahazardowen).
POSTED     April 13, 2018, 9:30 a.m.
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