“Knowing what goes on in the world” – how Danish students navigate through Facebook’s Newsfeed

Report on pilot study, IT University Copenhagen

How do young Danes inform themselves? How do they navigate through the different kind of news available on Facebook’s Newsfeed? These were the questions a pilot study run by DECIDIS researcher Martina Mahnke Skrubbeltrang (together with Jannie Møller Hartley & research assistant research Birgitte Rigtrup) focused on. The study builds on the DECIDIS survey, which showed that especially young users receive their daily news via Facebook’s Newsfeed: 47,1% from the 16-19 year old receive their news via Facebook and 37,1 % from the 20 to 29 year old. In the broader field of communication studies, several quantitative and qualitative studies have investigated in more detail if and how young people follow public news. In 2007, Horowitz & Mindich concluded that news and current affairs play a rather limited role in the everyday life of young people. However, another study carried out in the UK claims that news programs play an increasing role, as the youngsters’ grow older (Gauntlett & Hill, 1999). According to the recent Reuters Digital News Report more than 50 % of the young Danes between 18 and 25 access news several times a day.

While the frequent access to news might indicate an interest into news, a concern for many experts as well as parents is the platform news get accessed through. At the moment, Facebook is one of the primary platforms for the young and Facebook has continuously been criticized for their intransparent algorithms. In the light of the recent presidential election also for their susceptibility for fake news, which led to the instruction of special educational services for journalists. Despite the extensive critique Facebook is facing, it is still one of the most used platforms for receiving news and other information of interests. Therefore, the idea behind this study was to focus on the young users and their navigation strategies. The empirical data for this study was gathered amongst students taking the Master’s degree “Digital Design and Communication” at the IT University of Copenhagen. In total, 72 students took part in a survey that asked various questions in relation to their understanding of being informed in the digital age. They were for example asked what being informed means to them and how they would evaluate specific normative statements in relation to being an informed citizen. Drawing on the survey material, three students were interviewed in-depth in relation to their Newsfeed routines and two of the interviewed students took part in an additional workshop.

The results of the pilot study suggest that young Danish students approach news quite normatively. It seems like they get caught in their own ideals: On the one hand they wish for unbiased factual news and on the other, they need to deal with Facebook’s news reality; a reality in which news from traditional publishing houses are hardly distinguishable from other material. When asked about what the concept “being informed” means to them, the following answers were most common:

“Having an idea of what is going on in the world”
“Updated on the most current events in DK as well as the world”
“Being enlightened and wiser”
“To understand and be able to discuss the impact of whatever area you are informed on”

An interesting observation that can be made is that being informed refers to local as well as global news. A large part of the surveyed students wanted to be more aware of what is going on in the world and learn about current affairs through an unfiltered, nuanced and transparent lens as well as from different perspectives. When asked how the students feel about the information they receive via Facebook’s Newsfeed, they answered as follows:

“Facebook may have a lot of news in it, but if it is only relayed by others and not directly from the news source, it can get distorted.”
“Facebook’s News Feed is depending on what I like, what my friends like and what they share. Therefore it is very biased in my point of view”.
“Facebook entertainment rather then news – Facebook is only showing news that I am interested in”

According to the students, Facebook’s Newsfeed is strongly related to what has been discussed under the term filter bubble. Many students stated that they feel they do not receive proper news via Facebook. In their understanding, the information they receive is biased, subjective and leans towards the entertainment side. One fifth of the surveyed students, however, stated that they do feel informed via Facebook and they do feel so, because Facebook shows them what their friends read and therefore they feel updated. When asked about their Newsfeed behavior about 70 % stated that they scroll through Facebook strategically searching for news that specifically interests them. 29,2 % stated that they read almost all headlines when scrolling through the Facebook’s Newsfeed. In a further question, the students were asked to agree or disagree with specific normative statements in relation to the democratic ideal of being an informed citizen. Almost all students agreed on the following statements: “One has to be critical in his or her media selection”. The majority of the students agreed on the statement: “One has to read society related news”. Rather mixed were responses to statements such as “One has to seek information with a politically different view than one’s own” or “One has to seek actively for democracy-related news”.

The in-depth interviews conducted following the survey helped shedding light on more specific concepts that were used to describe news in general. A thematic analysis of the transcribed interviews resulted in the following list of concepts relating to the students’ news behavior:

Uncontrolled Entertainment Passing time
Time limited Situational Nuanced
 Controversial Noise Emotional
Information gathering Relevant Confirmatory
Raising awareness Dominating Surprise
Important Creating habits  

Asked which of the concepts above describe Facebook’s Newsfeed best, the answers varied. For example, one student answered:

  • Relevance
  • Situational
  • Raising awareness
  • Noise
  • Information gathering
  • Time limited

While another answered:

  • Relevance
  • Situational
  • Important
  • Entertainment
  • Uncontrolled
  • Passing time

A comparative look at both answers shows how personal the understanding of Facebook’s Newsfeed is. While the latter describes Facebook’s Newsfeed as entertaining, situational and complex in nature, the former describes it as relevant, noisy information that raises awareness towards situational issues.

In summary, this pilot study provides some interesting insights in relation to young user’s navigation habits. According to the collected data material, it can be concluded the surveyed students are using Facebook’s Newsfeed strategically in relation to their personal interests; however, with a normative mindset. That being said, they do look for news and information in relation to public affairs and at the same time they question sources, yet they seem to be disappoint by the selection of news they receive. Being asked what their ideal newsfeed would like, the answer was that they would like to receive more news from reliable sources. This raises the question, how public news providers can take these wishes into account and/or if they are able to reach the young generation via formats that build on the benefits of Facebook such as a wide variety of news from friends and acquaintances while reducing the disadvantages such as receiving irrelevant and partial misleading news.