Saying “I can just Google it” and then actually Googling it are two different things
Plus other findings from a new study’s interviews with that increasingly common creature, the “news avoider.”
“If I needed to know something, then somebody would probably knock at my door and tell me.”
That’s the sentiment of one participant in a study on how “news avoiders” — infrequent users of conventional news — rely on social media and search engine algorithms to get their information. Benjamin Toff, assistant professor at the University of Minnesota, and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, director of research at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, just published their findings from the study about three particular folk theories of news consumption — each one useful for news junkies seeking a better sense of how people who aren’t glued to Twitter think about their information intake.
The researchers interviewed 43 people in the U.K. (over half come from working-class backgrounds, and 39 percent of the sample have a bachelor’s degree) to get a sense of their perceptions of the news and how they consume it. They acknowledge that it’s not generalizable to the greater public, but “studying those who rarely engage directly with news media but do access information via social media and search provides a critical case study of the dynamics of an environment increasingly defined by platforms.”
(It’s worth keeping in mind The New York Times’ fiery report datelined from Medamahanuwara, Sri Lanka this weekend on how Facebook’s News Feed and Groups can warp social discourse with disinformation on the platform as the match in a tinderbox democracy, though Google’s search process is also significant in Toff and Nielsen’s report. The research was funded by Google’s Digital News Initiative.)
“Our interviewees often had confidence in social media and in search engines, but not always in themselves,” they conclude. They note that this study helps us recognize “how we can only understand how people use media if we understand how they understand media.” (Now say that three times fast.)
They define “folk theories” as “the culturally available symbolic resources that people use to make sense of their own media and information practices.” Here’s how they break down those three complementary theories, and here’s the link for the full article:
1. “News finds me”: Interviewees pointed to Facebook and other social media platforms for ensuring that they get enough information to know what’s going on in current events, though they were uncertain about how the algorithms, albeit convenient, function.
Cameron, for example, a musician and video game enthusiast, put it succinctly when he suggested that “news should come looking for me, I shouldn’t go looking for it.” This folk theory relies in part on people’s confidence in their social networks of friends and family, but also frequently and explicitly on their lived experience of the ways in which social media, especially Facebook, enable news to find them…
“If I needed to know something, then somebody would probably knock at my door and tell me,” Emily said after considering whether she felt like she had all the information she needed despite avoiding the news itself.
(A related 2017 study by Homero Gil de Zúñiga, Brian Weeks, and Alberto Ardèvol-Abreu specifically examined this news-finds-me mindset and found that those holding this belief “are less likely to use traditional news sources and are less knowledgeable about politics over time. Although the news-finds-me perception is positively associated with news exposure on social media, this behavior doesn’t facilitate political learning. These results suggest news continues to enhance political knowledge best when actively sought.”)
2. “The information is out there”: This was Google’s time to shine. Interviewees talked about how they have the ability to traverse the entire web to find additional information when they’re unclear on a topic, though doing so involves an active decision by the individual. Though “one of the most frequently repeated lines in our interviews was the phrase, ‘I just Google it’…saying ‘I just Google it’ is very different from, in fact, routinely Googling things.”
The central components are the beliefs that if one should want to seek out more information about an issue, (a) this information would in fact be available (whether from social media or other sources) and (b) it would be easy to find (primarily through Google search)…
In other words, Folk Theories 1 and 2 complemented each other in important ways: each form of distributed discovery had its advantages and disadvantages. Folk Theory 1 made it easy to stay sufficiently informed; Folk Theory 2 was a guard against falling for information that might announce itself, but was of dubious reliability.
3. “I don’t know what to believe”: Though most participants shared the sentiments from both the first and second folk theories, this third one was discussed by many but not all. It hits the main issues of trust in media and disinformation meant to cause confusion — especially with a certain commander-in-chief spouting about that.
There was considerable variation in whether people felt confident that they could make sense of the news that finds them via social media or that they find via search…[This theory is] anchored by interconnected feelings of being overloaded with information, possessing limited media literacy or trust, and having little knowledge of or faith in the political process…
When contemplating what might result from a search for information, Gracie said she imagined, “It would probably end up being very heavily statistics and numbers and things. And that blows my mind as well”…
[Two other participants shared:] “Yes, but what else I was reading on Donald Trump was how he was saying that certain newses [sic] are fake. And when you read stuff like that, you think, if he’s saying it, and he’s the President of the U.S. now, you just never know what’s going on”…
“I have absolutely no idea which newspaper is the most correct or which newspaper works solely or facts or quotes. No idea. I wouldn’t even know how to find out apart from typing it into Google.”