Are college students drawing their political news from social media and if so, are they fact checking the sources? This study was designed to answer these questions by surveying 28 students. The majority (51.7%) of these students were between the ages of 18-21. 21 of the participants were male, the other 7 were female, and all of them were students of Dr. Cannon’s Psych 220 class. The participants were surveyed with relevant questions such as “where do you get your current news?” and “do you fact check your articles?” The findings of the study were that students consume most of their political news from television (37.9%), with news sites (31%) and social media (27%) slightly less frequently. Additionally, the study found 82.8% of students either “never” or only “sometimes” fact checked their sources. Half of the hypothesis regarding a lack of fact checking was supported in concluding this study, but the other half was not. Implications for the future might be to begin with a larger, more diversified sample size to eliminate potential biases present.
Reliance on Social Media as a Source for Political News
With millions of political news sources online, and hundreds of millions of college students actively using social media every day, it’s only natural that these two mediums available overlap. Social media is already browsed regularly by billions of people, so college students getting their news from the same platform that they connect with friends on makes things more convenient for everyone. The problem with college students relying on social media as a source for their news creates many problems. One of which is so called “fake news” being spread throughout social media platforms spreading misinformation. So, the main question that this study begs is as follows; do college students rely heavily on social media for their political news, and if so, are the sources being fact checked?
Research conducted on the acceptance of fake news by demographic found that age has the highest correlation with the acceptance of fake news, and that younger people are more emotionally reactive to negative political news on the internet. (Rampersad, Althiyabi, 2019). In said study, the majority of participants in the study were age 21-30 years old which aligns with the demographic of the current study. Given that younger people are more reactive to negative and fake news on the internet, this provides support for the idea that a reliance on social media for political news increases the likelihood of consuming falsified information, and college students are the victims who are most likely to believe it.
The purpose of this study is to determine what percentage of college students use social media as their platform of choice for their political news consumption, and if they fact check the sources of the articles they are consuming. Reason being, social media is a gold mine for fake news and biased news that simply does not provide realistic information. College students who rely on articles found on social media should take caution as they can come from any source, which means there is a high margin for error and legitimacy of these articles. The main focus is political news, because it has the highest impact on society as a whole for adults to be informed with correct information. In addition, political news and opinions can be spread on social media by peers and celebrity icons which has the potential to cause people to believe the source if they respect the person, not necessarily based upon whether it is factual information or not.
The key prediction for the results of this study are that the majority of college students rely social media for their news consumption, and do not fact check the sources before believing said political articles and posts. A 2019 study on how college students consume news and the credibility of those sources found that social media (83% selection) was the number two prominent medium that college students use for their news source. This was just below discussion with peers. (Head, DeFrain, Fister, MacMilan, 2019). This study is predicated on the belief of misinformation being spread on social media, and college students being the demographic most prone to reacting to fake news.
The participants in this study were all students of Santiago Canyon College, specifically, all were enrolled in Dr. Cannon’s Psychology 220 online Research Methods course. This study included 29 unique students. 21 (72.4%) of the participants were male and only 8 (27.6%) of the participants were female. Of the participants, the majority (51.7%) were between the ages of 18-21. Surprisingly, the second highest percentage (24.1%) of students in the study were 36+ years old. For simplicities sake, the participants in the study were picked from the same class of students out of convenience sampling. The study conducted was of no benefit or compensation to the students, they each participated voluntarily.
Materials and Procedure
The data in this study was collected via a Google Docs Survey that was provided to each student individually through a hyperlink. The survey contained a total of 9 questions with 4 questions relating to news consumption, 3 for political opinion and activity, and the other two were general questions such as gender and age. The questions were designed to understand political activity among the students, and where they receive their news on political topics.
Questions were asked specifically to gauge the amount of reliance there is on social media for the students’ political news, and if they are sure of the sources being reliable. One question prompted: “where do you get your current news?” The possible answers consisted of (“Social Media”, “Television”, Newspapers/sites”, and “Friends/Family”) This question served the purpose of determining what percentage of students use social media as their main source of political news. A follow up question asked: “Do you fact check news articles?” Possible answers for this ranged from (“Yes”,” No”, and “Sometimes”). This question was very important when in conjunction with the news source question because it determined that if the majority of students did actually use social media as their first choice for political news, whether their sources on their feeds were providing factual information.
Other questions such as asking “Do you follow current politics” and “Do you believe current politics have an affect on your daily life?” provided crucial information of whether the students even followed or cared about politics to begin with. Because if the majority of answers to these two questions were “No”, then it would deem the entire study null. Two very general questions were asked based on “what is your age group?” and “what is your gender?” these questions served the purpose of identifying if the survey had any unbalances or inaccuracies based on the parameters of the study.
The hypothesis of this study was that students rely heavily on social media for their political news consumption, and that these sources are not being fact checked. The results of this study were only able to provide support for half of this hypothesis. Students were asked how often they consume news, and more than half of the participants stated that they read the news anywhere from 2-4+ times per week. This statistic shows that news is being consumed at a rapid rate by college students. Figure 2. A graph asking students if they fact check articles, showed that a staggering 82.8% of students said that they either “sometimes” or “never” fact check news articles that they read. Given that there is a large amount of news media consumption found here, as well as a shockingly low amount of fact checking, this leaves a large amount of room for error and “fake news” to slip through the cracks of college students’ media consumption. These findings support half of the thesis in that the students are not fact checking the sources of their political news consumption. However, this is where the support for the thesis start to fade. The most important question in support of the Thesis asked participants what sources they get their news from. The results showed a fairly even 3-way split between television, newspapers/sites, and social media.
The results of the study both supported and did not support the hypothesis in different ways. It came at a surprise that less than 1/3 of the participants regularly get their news from social media. Students showed to rely on social media for news far less than predicted. One factor that could have had a slight skew on this result was that a whopping 24.1% of students in this study were 36 years or older. While college students can be any age, the purpose of this study was to determine the impact on young college students specifically because they were predicted to be the most likely to use social media heavily and least likely to check the sources of the information that they consume. The 2019 study which had a much larger sample size (N=5,844) found evidence that supports the hypothesis in this study. The study found that 72% of students stated that they checked social media daily for their news. ((Head, DeFrain, Fister, MacMilan, 2019).
Because there is peer reviewed, supported evidence that social media is a prominent source of college students’ news media consumption, this could mean that factors in the current study lead to inaccurate information. For starters, the sample size here was only 29 students and from a single class room. This is not considered a very strong sample size and was concentrated to a single class room. If the sample size were to be increased drastically, and students were selected from several different classrooms and colleges, the results here might match past research. Another factor hindering this study is that 72.4% of participants were male. While no direct influence can be derived from this stat, it certainly leaves room for gender-based biases.
The most drastic result of this study found that 37.9% of participants stated that they do not fact check articles at all when reading them, and 44% reported only “sometimes” fact checking information. That’s 81.9% of students who rarely or never fact check their political news sources. This provided strong evidence to support the hypothesis of the study. Supporting these results was a study conducted in 2019 which found that younger students are far more receptive to believing fake news than the older aged demographics. (Rampersad, Althiyabi, 2019).
While there was support for the hypothesis of this study in the results, both within the study itself, and from previous peer reviewed studies, there are still questions that need answers. In future studies, a larger sample size would make the results more accurate and remove gender biases that this study may have had due to the overwhelming number of males to female participants. If in future studies the sample is taken from several different colleges and classrooms, it might alter the results because of geographical, cultural, economic, and career biases being eliminated that may have been present here.
Rampersad, G., & Althiyabi, T. (2019). Fake news: Acceptance by demographics and culture on social media. Journal of Information Technology & Politics, 2. https://doi.org/10.1080/19331681.2019.1686676
Head, J. H., Defrain, E., Fister, B., & Macmillan, M. (2019). Across the great divide: How today’s college students engage with news. First Monday: Peer-Reviewed Journal on the Internet. 24(8), https://doi.org/10.5210/fm.v24i8.10166