University of Amsterdam: Online news consumption can increase the divide between citizens, but also boost political involvement

In the past everyone used to read the same news (one size fits all), but now we get our own made-to-measure news portions. News is selected based on our taste and online behaviour. Does it matter that we no longer see and read the same things? ‘The divide between citizens who choose political news and citizens who choose entertainment seems to be growing in the digital society,’ says communication scientist Susan Vermeer, who studied our news consumption. ‘But at the same time digital platforms boost the political involvement of citizens, especially young citizens.’ On Friday 19 November she will defend her PhD thesis at the University of Amsterdam.

Digital technologies have drastically changed news consumption. News is available 24/7 and everywhere, and there’s a huge diversity of news sources. It’s not only newspapers that have gone online or news platforms that emerged, also social media such as Facebook and WhatsApp provide our daily news. Particularly young citizens are increasingly consuming their news online. This digital evolution has made news more personal and it is less and less common for people to read the same news sources. Our own social connections send us all sorts of news, and algorithms supply us with news aligned to what they know about us.

At the same time, being informed about political and social issues is important for a well-functioning democracy. Hence some academics are optimistic about these new developments, supposing that they contribute to this good functioning because we can easily find information which, moreover, we feel is really interesting. In contrast, other academics warn about a growing divide due to ‘filter bubbles’: people who are interested in politics are much better informed about political issues.

Which news is consumed by whom, and how (in which context)?
Communication scientist Susan Vermeer joins this debate by finding answers to the following question: which news is consumed by whom, and how (in which context)? She establishes that both sides of the debate are right to some extent. Yes, the divide between citizens who read political news and citizens who choose entertainment is growing. But digital platforms also boost the political involvement of citizens, especially young people.

Citizens are more selective in their news consumption
Since television is still an important source of political news – as demonstrated by the COVID-19 crisis – Vermeer started by researching news consumption via TV. To this end she collected audience-meter data (from over 1,700 Dutch households and almost 4,000 viewers) which provides information on viewing figures: who watches a particular channel, when, and for how long. Then Vermeer shifted her focus to the online world. She monitored the online behaviour of Dutch users with the help of a browser plug-in. This generated a dataset of more than 1 million Web pages from 175 websites (news websites, search engines and social media) that give insight into what type of news is searched for and retrieved.

The dividing line between citizens who prefer political news and citizens who choose entertainment seems to be getting bigger in the digital society
Vermeer concludes that citizens have become more selective in their news consumption and that individual preferences, such as political interests and ideology, play a crucial role in news consumption. ‘Citizens who are more interested in politics consume more political news, and citizens with less interest in politics prefer news that focusses more on entertainment. This dividing line seems to be getting bigger in a digital society’, argues Vermeer.

WhatsApp can get young people involved in political issues
In addition, Vermeer carried out an experiment among young adults at six Dutch secondary schools to measure the effects of sharing and discussing political news with the help of digital technology. From this she concludes that online platforms, such as WhatsApp, are an important medium for getting young adults involved in political and social issues. ‘Social connections, friends and family, have a major influence here on what news young people encounter online and, in a positive way, on how they respond to it’, concludes Vermeer.

Online platforms also contribute to political interest
Lastly Vermeer posits a link between news consumption on the one hand and political interest and news media trust on the other. Above all the consumption of traditional news media seems to correlate strongly with this interest and trust, but in addition the consumption of, for instance, mobile news apps correlates with political interest. ‘So online platforms can have a positive impact on society’, Vermeer concludes. ‘Even though the effects are small, they contribute to citizens’ interest in and interaction with political news.’

Useful points of departure
Vermeer concludes that this research into news consumption provides useful points of departure for arriving at a better understanding of how people consume news in the digital society. ‘To some extent this research confirms the pessimistic picture regarding filter bubbles and that citizens with strong political interest consume political news more often, and that this increases the gap with citizens who are less politically interested.’

But in her view the research also shows that digital technologies and platforms can help to increase political involvement among citizens. ‘Citizens not only have access to a wide range of news sources, they actually make use of them, too’, says Vermeer. ‘Digital platforms can be a resource for getting young citizens involved in political and social issues.’

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