Fake news fears drive audiences away from social media, Ofcom finds

Craig Simpson
·3-min read
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Fears over fake news have resulted in fewer people using social media to follow current affairs compared to a year ago, according to a new report from Ofcom.

The survey by the media watchdog shows public trust in the impartiality and accuracy of news sources found on platforms like Twitter and Facebook has fallen since 2019.

Rampant disinformation online has been highlighted by MPs as a threat to democracy, and big tech companies have been criticised in the past for inaction over false stories proliferating online.

The declining trust in popular social media platforms to host reliable news sources has resulted in the public reverting to traditionally trusted media such as news magazines and TV, according to Ofcom research.

Amid concerns about misinformation the proportion of people using forums like Facebook to keep on with current affairs has fallen from 49% in 2019 to 45% in 2020, with only a third of the surveyed public finding sources on these platforms to be trustworthy.

MPs scrutinising the media have welcomed the trend away from fake news for the sake of truth, democracy, and national security.

In 2019 the Department of Digital Culture Media and sport (DCMS) Select Committee concluded fake news put democracy “at risk” due to the “relentless targeting of citizens with disinformation”.

Since that year the perceived accuracy (37% to 34%) and impartiality (36% to 33%) of social media sources has fallen.

Chairman of the DCMS Committee Julian Knight told the Daily Telegraph:  “This is yet another wake up call to the social media companies. They need now to understand that it is in their interests to be subject to strong regulation when it comes to the spread of harmful, deliberate disinformation.

“Clearly, public trust is being eroded in the information carried by the likes of Twitter, Facebook and Youtube and these platforms only have themselves to blame.”

Instead of using unreliable sources on social media, Ofcom found audiences seeking news from traditional TV, the BBC in particular, other internet sites, and the radio.

According to Ofcom’s annual report, the public are now less inclined to share videos and articles they have found on these sites, which have often been criticised for containing false information which can quickly go viral.

Defence Committee chairman Tobias Ellwood warned that ill-intentioned actors can “set hares running” online with these “artificial trends”, and false information spread by foreign bots, and hopes their influence could be diminished by  more savvy audiences.

“Perhaps people are becoming wiser to it,” he said.  “It is a concerning time when it comes to the deluge of information out there.  So much is read into a single tweet.  

“I am pleased to see this perhaps recalibrating itself from the avalanche of news that the internet churns up.”

TV remains the most popular medium to receive news, with 75% of people using it to keep informed, followed by the internet with 65%, and then radio with 42%.

An Ofcom spokeswoman described the resulting trend away from these platforms, saying that: “Fewer people are using social media to get their news than last year and they are less inclined to share videos or articles from these platforms too.”

BBC One was found to be the channel of choice for a majority (56%) of adults, although the BBC’s channels have seen a fall in viewers coming to them for news since 2019.

Despite a drop in use of social media, Facebook has remained the third most-popular single source of information behind BBC One and ITV.

Damian Collins, former chairman of the DCMS Committe who examined the issue of fake news, said: "Ofcom’s latest News Consumption report clearly shows that social media is being less used as a news source, whilst at the same time losing trust, impartiality and accuracy in the eyes of users, not a huge surprise, given the shocking amount of health disinformation that has been allowed to flourish there during the pandemic."