2. The election window: How smartphones are shaping our view of the political debate

Elections insights

This is the second of four blogs based on self-funded research into how smartphones are influencing our view of the UK elections. Click on the introductory blog for an overview of the project, the research methods blog to learn how we were able to ‘see’ largely private smartphone behaviours, and the case studies blog for a look at some of the key data. For further reading, the Guardian has published a lengthy analysis of our research.

This self-funded research around election-related news consumption is small in size, but builds on a recent and more extensive study into news behaviours for Ofcom.

While it’s not possible to draw generalisable conclusions from this piece of research, it does provide a window into the news behaviours of different individuals and helps us to understand how applicable the previous research findings are in an election context. Below we run through the main findings from our previous research for Ofcom and see whether they chime with the data we drew from the election-related news project.

Ofcom finding #1: Smartphones are shaping how we consume news

Many people access news primarily via their smartphones. Social media platforms—especially Facebook, Twitter and Instagram—were for a lot of people a major source news.

Overall, we found during research for Ofcom that the widespread use of social media to access news meant participants’ networks could be narrow or lacked a diversity of viewpoints.

Many people were more likely to be drawn to news that offered opinion rather than facts, especially with regards to content that reinforced their worldview or—with Facebook in particular—that came in the form of commentary from peers.

Update from the elections research
We recruited six people we knew to be politically-engaged social media users to see what kind of election-related news they were seeing on their smartphones. For some of them, social media was the dominant source of news.
Contrary to what’s often reported in the press, the vast majority of political content seen by those individuals taking part in this research was being shared by people within the individual’s own friendship network, rather than from paid-for advertising by political parties or other influencers.
‘Fake news’ was not a big feature of the content seen by the individuals taking part in this study. However, articles with a strong emotional angle, or where truthful content was deliberately being used out of context, were commonplace. Therefore, while content was not untrue per se, it often had the feeling of being exaggerated or propagandist.

Ofcom finding #2: A large quantity of news is received incidentally

Much news is accessed without deliberate intent—for example, via push notifications or where news articles appear on a social media feed.

Some participants in our Ofcom project said they no longer needed to actively seek out content to feel they were getting an overview of the news.

Without properly attending to the full range of news that might be available on a dedicated news site or app, individuals were likely to only see a small subset of the news available.

Update from the elections research
Most of those individuals taking part in the research saw a large amount of election-related content every day on their social media news feeds.
Participants were often aware that what they were seeing was likely to be quite skewed as a result of the interests and political preferences of those within their friendship group.
Some had not reflected on just how skewed it was towards a specific political viewpoint. The ‘filter bubble’ created on social media bothered some individuals in our sample, but not others. Indeed, some actively enjoyed the news slant that their ‘bubble’ had created.

Ofcom finding #3: Many people are mostly consuming news passively.

The Ofcom research revealed that much of the news consumed by participants was done so passively. This led to a low level of engagement which was most prominent when participants were on social media—for example, sifting through headlines or skimming quickly through articles.

Update from the elections research
People were routinely scanning social media content, only taking in headlines, pictures and commentary that had been added by friends. Five of the six participants in our study rarely clicked through from headline to article (see Blog 4 for a breakdown of the data).
For many stories, people didn’t stray from the social media platform even when the news story was from, or contained a link to, a specific external news platform.
On the whole, people were willing to trust content that superficially appeared to reinforce their own views, often without engaging with the material in any detail.

Ofcom finding #4: People are not always purposefully looking for trustworthy or verifiable sources

Another effect of using social media to access news was the likelihood of coming across news and current affairs content from a variety of unverified or less mainstream sources, some of which could be considered fake news.

Though some within the sample were aware of the dangers of such sources, many did not think to check claims made by their friends or lesser-known news providers. Trust in the integrity of the provider was not always considered important.

Update from the elections research
Some other behaviours emerged in which the information that people come across was instrumentalised in different ways.
Some were actively re-sharing content and/or adding their own comments without investing in reading the story or verifying the truthfulness of the content.
Some took time to try and validate content, demonstrating some motivation to ‘fact check’ or ‘truth-seek’.
Where people were looking to fact-check content, this behaviour often looked more like a ‘mad hunt for confirmation’, rather than a systematic search for evidence. Again, individuals seemed less interested in the veracity of sources or balanced accounts, and more interested in finding any way of confirming their pre-existing beliefs.