By Jim Waterson/London
Ask the average 2019 voter where the problems with political news lie, and you might hear a few familiar claims: fake news. Russian interference. The biased BBC. But take a look at their smartphones, and you might discover a different, more chaotic world – in which news is being shaped less by publishers or foreign agents but by social media algorithms and friendship groups.
Now, in a first-of-its-kind election monitoring project conducted by the Guardian and research agency Revealing Reality, a group of voters have allowed their phone use to be recorded for three days – and the results from each individual’s phone show how the traditional media ecosystem is changing and disintegrating.
Charlie in Sunderland consumed much of his election news through memes on lad humour Facebook pages, spending more time looking at posts of Boris Johnson than reading traditional news stories. Fiona in Bolton checked out claims about Jeremy Corbyn’s wealth by going to a website called Jihadi Watch before sharing the far-right material in a deliberate bid to anger her left-wing friends. And Shazi in Sheffield followed the BBC leaders’ interviews purely by watching videos of party supporters chanting the Labour leader’s name outside the venue.
The six volunteers who took part in the project should be seen as a snapshot rather than a statistically representative sample of the population. But the behaviour chimes with previous research to illustrate a pattern of behaviour across the political spectrum – a result with huge implications for the role of responsible journalism and reliable sources.
“News is becoming intermingled with entertainment,” said Damon De Ionno of agency Revealing Reality, who ran the project after pioneering the screen-recording approach to market research in the UK. “You’re no longer asking: what’s going on in the world today? It’s very different – you want to be entertained.”
The analysts who studied the volunteers – recruited under pseudonyms to reflect a spread of demographics, politics, and geography – saw broad patterns in the way they used their phones. Some were expected, with people increasingly consuming news passively by scrolling through headlines rather than actively seeking out information; one woman in London read 29 headlines but clicked on just six and only read three articles to the end.
Several participants were observed sharing articles on Facebook without clicking the links, and excitedly diving into comment sections for an argument before looking at the articles. Most showed a tendency to read news that confirmed their existing views.
Some behaviours were more surprising, hinting Britain may be becoming a nation of trolls. One 22-year-old Conservative-voting woman was observed going out of her way to read reputable mainstream news sources so she had a balanced understanding of Labour policies. But she would then seek out provocative far-right blog posts to share on Facebook because their headlines would anger her left-wing friends and create online drama.
In this snapshot of online voter behaviour, news is often consumed through user-generated memes, posts by celebrity influencers, and politicians’ own social media accounts. Despite the large focus on paid-for Facebook adverts during this election, such material appeared rarely in users’ newsfeeds during the time that data was being collected.
And while mainstream websites such as the BBC, Sky News, MailOnline and the Guardian still play a key role in news consumption – collectively reaching tens of millions of readers every day and helping to set the tone of coverage – professional journalism outlets are only one small part of where the public are getting their online information about this election.
“It’s total anarchy,” said De Ionno. “The idea of fake news and fake ads, with Russians manipulating people, is a really easy bogeyman. The reality is there’s many more shades of grey and it’s hard to unpick.”
And it’s political parties who understand how to cut through this cacophony of information who stand a better chance of success of winning the upcoming general election.
At Revealing Reality’s headquarters in a converted ballroom in south London, a group of analysts working for De Ionno are attempting to piece together how Britons are consuming news in this general election campaign with the aid of a wall of photos of each volunteer in their home, pages of data, and transcripts of interviews.
Although there were some changes in behaviour during the study the researchers believe most people largely forgot their phones were being recorded.
Analysts then studied the recordings of each volunteer’s screen activity using a coding system adapted from software originally built for the study of animal behaviour, before comparing notes following a three-hour interview with each participant.
“A lot of the content has been taken out of context,” says one analyst, looking at Charlie’s online reading habits.
“They’re disengaging with mainstream sources,” says another.
A third analyst said Shazi didn’t really understand that social media algorithms shaped what news she was seeing on Twitter: “She wasn’t aware that other people would be seeing different things.”
The researchers came across very little completely false material. According to Ruby Wootton, one of the researchers on the project, rather than outright fake news there was instead a glut of heavily-slanted news with a kernel of fact. Instead she saw “a lot of content that is quite exaggerated or deliberately presented to influence you in a way that’s not connected to the full picture.”
Regardless of their place on the political spectrum, the analysts found people are drifting into the same habits, sometimes knowingly embracing the “indulgence” of a reassuring social media bubble of news that reinforced their existing viewpoints in a troubled world.
Participants also appeared to have little idea why they were seeing certain news stories, being guided by news aggregation services already built into their phones or the whims of social media algorithms serving up material from friends. They also often failed to distinguish between material posted by established news outlets and obscure Facebook groups.
“If social media content is playing such a central role in shaping people’s views on the election what are the implications for high quality journalism, reputable sources and well constructed and evidenced articles?” asked Revealing Reality’s researchers.
The individuals who took part in the study – all aged under 60 – very rarely watched television news, reflecting the shift away from the medium for that age group. But many were aware of claims of BBC bias during the election and had seen viral video clips of political interviews culled from mainstream programmes.
Even though they were rarely watching it, some cared very deeply about what the BBC was broadcasting on the basis that it was influencing other voters, perhaps explaining why viral video clips of the BBC’s mistakes are sometimes reaching more viewers than the original television audiences.
But the screen recording data suggests that the traditional media are now just a sliver of how the British public are learning about politics, with a growing role for political activists with large followings – with posts by the likes of comedian Jason Manford as likely to decide what people see online about the election as stories from traditional news outlets.
While political journalism during this election has often focused on official online campaign material put out by political parties themselves – or the spectre of under-the-radar paid-for Facebook ad campaigns – the case studies suggest that real story of the 2019 online general election campaign could be in the general chaos of users’ smartphones and social media, where memes compete with rolling arguments in local Facebook groups and content from traditional outlets.
This constant passive consumption of the news – as opposed to relying on a single news bulletin or reading a particular print newspaper once a day – meant bombshell articles fail to get heard over the general online cacophony.
De Ionno said he had noticed people struggled to remember individual stories, adding: “News doesn’t stick as well. There’s a new drama every day and cliffhangers on a daily basis. A lot of the respondents didn’t have a good memory of what happened a week ago.”
While previously the public’s news consumption was shaped by powerful gatekeepers such as newspaper editors or the bosses of heavily regulated broadcast news channels, on their phones it is shaped more by the hands-off approach of companies such as Facebook. The social network has decided against taking a patrician approach of pushing straightforward reporting into newsfeeds alongside user-generated memes asking Was Enoch Powell Right?, or hyperpartisan posts spreading distorted information about Jeremy Corbyn.
With limited human involvement in choosing the news stories people are seeing, the researchers said the general public were being asked to take responsibility for their own news diet with the hope that they seek out accurate information without any intervention.
Revealing Reality’s analysis of the volunteers’ election news consumption concluded: “If everything that people are seeing is via social media – who is accountable? There is very little human intelligence or decision-making behind it, no attempt to give a balanced view. That seems to leave all responsibility on the reader.” - Guardian News and Media
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