When Steve Sequeira wants to check the news, he logs into Instagram.

He avoids watching the news on TV, because he often feels like it is a barrage of negativity. For Sequeira, 23, using Instagram presents the news in compact, readable squares of information that he can interact with whenever he wants. If he needs a break from the negativity, he can easily focus on other things.

“What I like about [news accounts on] social media is, it is very direct, and their points are very straightforward,” he says. “For example, I follow CNN on Instagram, and their posts are, like, six or seven words. There’s an image that looks very attractive. And then they’ve put a URL and if you want to find more information, you can click on it, but it’s quick and it’s easy.”

However, one of the Instagram pages he gets his news from isn’t run from a newsroom, but by a single person, who isn’t even a journalist. The page, Halifax Noise, functions as a news aggregator site for Halifax, N.S., collecting screenshots, tweets and emails of local news and events, submitted by people from around the regional municipality.

Sequeira is one of the roughly 31.8 million Canadians using social media, according to a 2021 poll published by Statista Research Department, a marketing and consumer statistics database. A separate poll, commissioned by the Canadian Journalism Foundation, found that as of 2021, 52 per cent of Canadians relied on their social media feed for news.

Combining these two numbers suggests that 16.5 million Canadians get their news primarily from social media. But how well-served are Canadians whose main source of news is not a newsroom? And what is lost when news is consumed over social media?

Understanding digital literacy

While  newsrooms typically have accounts on different social media platforms, a  2021 Statista survey shows that most Canadians who get their news on social media get it from Facebook and YouTube. Because that number has grown in the past decade, and is projected by Statista to continue to grow, it’s important to understand the concept of digital literacy, and how it relates to online information.

Heidi Julien is a professor in the department of information science at the University at Buffalo. She specializes in digital literacy – which is vitally important to consuming news online.

“I define [digital literacy] as the set of skills that people need to access digital information effectively, efficiently and ethically,” Julien says. “And it’s not just accessing. It’s also using that information.”

Digital literacy skills and disinformation

Building good digital literacy skills is a process that Julien believes should begin when children enter school and continue throughout their entire lives. A digital literacy skill can be something as simple as navigating a search engine, or as complex as gauging whether or not information is trustworthy.

“Really, it falls on the education system, in the first instance, to develop that skill set,” she says. “But it’s been my experience that digital literacy may or may not be taught in school, and even when it is, it’s rarely actually tested.”

Most adults, Julien says, overestimate their digital literacy skills. One reason for this phenomenon is because people assume that because they spend a lot of time online, they must be good at consuming information mindfully. But they’re still susceptible to the influence of algorithms.

An algorithm is a method of content organization commonly used by social media platforms. Controlled by computer programs, algorithms sort information on social feeds based on a number of factors, including perceived relevance, past user interest and whether content is advertising. Often disinformation found online is amplified by algorithms that fill consumer’s feeds with content that serves only to reaffirm their worldview — whatever that may be.

John Loeppky, a freelance journalist from Saskatchewan, summarizes this phenomenon by saying, “You find the media you want to find.”

Journalists’ online presences

Alexander Quon is a journalist based in Regina, Sask. He has been in the industry for five years and considers himself “very online” with more than 8,000 Twitter followers as of October 2021.

“I found that having a presence online is a way to get people to reach out to you or to get people to know that you are covering a certain beat,” he says.

Loeppky is also very active on social media with more than 1,400 friends on Facebook, whom he says he has made largely through networking with other journalists.

Both Loeppky and Quon rely on social media for their jobs, and use their various accounts to interact with consumers, share stories and reach out to people. Loeppky especially believes that while there are drawbacks to being so immersed in news on social media, it can be very useful.

“I think one of the best ways that social media has impacted local journalism is things like live-tweeting city council meetings,” he says.

Live-tweeting such meetings means that a wider audience has access to information that would otherwise be difficult to learn about. Some of the more mundane aspects of a council meeting would never see the light of day outside meeting minutes, if not for live-tweeting.

Loeppky also finds that social media helps him build connections as a journalist, something Quon also heavily focuses on. In fact, his Twitter bio reads “DMs are open.”

“Being reasonably well-connected is fun,” Loeppky says with a laugh.

Nontraditional news sources

As a consumer, Sequeira follows only accounts he deems factual on Instagram, saying he has a “good level of trust” in social media. One step he takes that he says helps him consume more responsibly is limiting the amount of time he spends on Instagram. He usually spends about 45 minutes per day according to his account analytics. He says his usage has “definitely increased” over the past few years. Data from analytics provider SimilarWeb reports that as of 2018, the average Instagram user spent 53 minutes per day on the site.

Sequeira tries to get most of his news from actual news pages like CBC and CNN, rather than HalifaxNoise.

“Halifax Noise can be very uneasy to read sometimes, because they post straight from, say, an email, or they post straight [COVID] data from exposure sites,” he says.

Sequeira prefers when pages highlight important details and prioritize information. Often, news aggregators will post uncondensed screenshots of data, which readers have to interpret themselves. What Sequeira is describing – whether he realizes it or not – is the difference between journalism, which provides information and valuable analysis, and aggregators, which share information without context.

As of October 2021, Halifax Noise has about 161,000 followers on Instagram. Assuming all of Halifax Noise’s followers live in the city, that’s roughly 36 per cent of the 448,500 person population.

“Most of my friends, they consume their news through Halifax Noise,” Sequeira says.

As a journalist, Quon has worked all over the country, including in Halifax.

“I think Halifax Noise is unique,” he says. “I haven’t found anything that is similar on that level here in Saskatchewan, where I work now.”

With Halifax Noise, there are no beats, sources or publication deadlines. It’s all run by Haligonian Kate Ross, who, according to an interview she did with The Signal back in 2016, has a background in social media, but not traditional journalism.

Ross declined an interview request.

Social media managers and the algorithm

Even for people like Sequeira, who feel they have a strong understanding and trust in social media, there’s still the issue of the algorithm.

Oriol Salvador is the social media manager at The Coast, an alternative weekly paper in Halifax. He has been in his position since August 2021, but worked in the social media sphere long before that. For those who work behind the scenes in the newsroom, social media and news aggregators can be a great help, but also a great challenge.

In the case of news aggregators like HalifaxNoise, Salvador says that while they can be helpful by sharing newsroom’s stories, they can also take traffic away from original sites, since most people won’t bother to click through to the rest of the story, but instead just look at what is screen-shot on the page. For publications like The Coast, sharing stories on social media isn’t only about sharing information, it’s also about making money.

The most audience engagement is on The Coast’s Instagram and Facebook pages, says Salvador. He defines audience engagement as how many times a post is liked, shared or commented on.

Posting in the algorithm’s favour

The most important thing for newsrooms to keep in mind is that different social media platforms should have different objectives, according to Salvador. Some are good for sharing content, and some are good exclusively for generating an audience.

“Publishers that are doing really well on TikTok, like the Washington Post, what they’re doing is generating an audience,” he says. “Because TikTok has young people and the Washington Post is more well-known with older generations, they need to engage new readers, or their audience will just get old and, you know, eventually disappear.”

As of October 2021, the Washington Post has one million followers on TikTok. The New York Times, by contrast, doesn’t even have an account on the platform.

Salvador stresses the importance of publications understanding algorithms and working to produce content in their favour. In 2016 and 2017, producing content with videos was extremely popular, especially on YouTube and Facebook. Following controversy from popular YouTube personalities, several large ad companies began boycotting the platform. This event spurred YouTube to crack down on content, monetizing only “family friendly” videos and creators. According to Salvador, this triggered Facebook to also adjust its algorithm to no longer prioritize video content.

Quon remembers this.

“In 2016, around the time I started working, a lot of news organizations were pivoting to video at first,” he says. “So that’s kind of been dropped as it’s come to be known that it doesn’t necessarily give you the audience and traffic that people thought was going to be there.”

As for Sequeira, he plans to continue to read the news over Instagram. The passive act of scrolling, to him, is much more enjoyable than other ways of consuming news.

“I watch the news from the TV, I don’t come out happy. I look at the news on social media, I’m just like, ‘Oh it’s whatever.’”

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About the author

Elizabeth Foster

Elizabeth Foster is a fourth-year journalism student from Maine. She also works as the Arts and Lifestyle editor of the Dalhousie Gazette and...

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