What news do young people get on social media?

By Cheng Yui Seeng

PHOTO: LIANG LEI


Apathetic, ignorant and uninformed. I often hear these labels being associated with my generation. A part of me feels wronged, because these labels clearly ignore the news outlets I follow on social media. But another part of me concedes that the news I’m being fed on these platforms are the ones I like to read because, well, algorithms.


It’s a known fact that young adults differ from their elders in their news reading habits. In our earlier survey of 100 young Singaporeans, 9 in 10 respondents got their news mainly online. Of this group, 63 per cent said they got their political news from social media.


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It’s a growing trend too, according to the National Youth Council which in 2016 found 78 per cent of youths used social media to get their news, up from 59 per cent in 2013.


I wanted to find out if the kinds of news I see on my feed were different from other people.


So I asked five of my peers — three students and two working adults — to send screenshots of the first few posts they saw on their Facebook. They did this twice a day, in the morning and at night, for four days from March 11 to 14. Yes, I have accommodating friends.


It’s not scientific, sure, but it does offer a glimpse into the reading diets of first-time voters. This was what we found:

Nearly half of the posts were news articles, of which a majority came directly from the Facebook pages of the news outlets.


Qian Ni was an anomaly. She raised the average proportion of news posts significantly because she followed at least eight news sites such as The Straits Times, CNA, Goody Feed and 8world News. Excluding her, the rest of my friends only saw news posts 34 per cent of the time on their feeds.


Benjamin did not follow any news outlets but still saw news often on his feed because of his friends who shared them.


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Unsurprisingly, most of the news was about Covid-19. PM Lee’s video address on the Covid-19 situation showed up on the top of three of my friend’s feeds. But the sources varied — from local news media like CNA, The Straits Times, Mothership.sg to international outlets like Daily Mail and New York Post.


These were some posts they saw in common:


Education Minister condemns Mee Toh School bullying


Two of my friends saw news of this on their feeds. It started with a picture of a crumpled piece of paper containing insults aimed at a primary school girl which blew up on Twitter and had Education Minister Ong Ye Kung denouncing the act on his Facebook page a few days later.



Rare white giraffes killed by poachers


This post was seen by three of my friends. It wasn’t that big of a news in the mainstream media, but among my friends it was shared widely.



It is likely because millennials are more concerned about conservation issues, resulting in an increased frequency of such news delivered by the Facebook algorithm. Facebook’s algorithm changes all the time, but it’s largely based on what it thinks you will like and comment on.


Other news posts were about Microsoft founder Bill Gates stepping down from the Microsoft board and American film producer Harvey Weinstein being sentenced to 23 years jail for rape and sexual assault.


News about the K-pop industry made frequent appearances, even though none of my friends followed K-pop news sources. Two saw news on boy bands like Big Bang and TVXQ as well as actors like Song Ji Hyo, which were shared by their friends at least twice each in the period.


My friends saw news that a nurse at Ng Teng Fong General Hospital had been infected and that the Health ministry was trying to identify 95 Singaporeans at a religious gathering in Malaysia where several cases of the coronavirus were confirmed. News regarding the general election appeared on three of their feeds.


What they didn’t see was news of the Government’s intention to release a second stimulus package to bolster the economy through the Covid-19 pandemic. Nor did they see US President Donald Trump’s declaring a national emergency over the outbreak and denying responsibility for failures to test for the virus as well as Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte placing Manila under lockdown to contain the viral spread.


I looked at my own Facebook feed and realised 37 per cent of my posts were on current affairs. I too caught wind of similar news items, like the Ng Teng Fong General Hospital nurse and the Mee Toh School bullying incident and the deaths of the white giraffes. But the remaining 63 per cent was mainly sponsored posts, food recommendations and memes.


Because of young people’s reliance on social media, the news we receive is targeted to our interests. So that’s different from someone older like my father who is exposed to the different sections of The Straits Times which he reads religiously. It’s something we don’t seem to have the time nor dedication to do. When I tell him that I read news on social media, he is sceptical and doesn’t believe it is sufficient.


I guess he’s right.


What we really get from social media most of the time are bite-sized breaking news that everyone is bound to know about or news that cater to our (or our friends’) interests.


We may be content with this while studying, but it’s probably not enough to equip us for the workplace or make an informed vote. I mean, are we really going to ask our parents for help on who to vote for? I’d rather not.


Ethan Tay contributed reporting.

By NUS Communications and New Media

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