Choose Your Own News: Readers Want to Drive Coverage on Facebook, Traditional Outlets

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Nearly half of Americans in our most recent national poll have heard about Facebook allegedly suppressing conservative news stories on their platform. Where did most people under the age of 45 find out about the story?

On Facebook, of course.

A quarter of respondents under age 45 said they read about Facebook possibly quashing conservative news on Facebook itself, a fact that underscores just how present the social media behemoth is in Americans’ daily lives. A deeper dive into voters’ opinions shows why this story may have struck a chord: When it comes to the news, readers want their interests to come first and editors’ judgement to come second. And that fact applies to traditional media outlets as well as social media platforms.

RELATED: Many Americans Heard About the Facebook Bias Allegations — on Facebook

Thirty-one percent of registered voters said “reader interest” should determine what news stories show up on social media platforms, versus 11 percent who say editors should pick what’s visible to users. The numbers break down similarly when it comes to what respondents want from traditional media outlets. Only slightly more registered voters, 15 percent, think editors should pick what gets covered at traditional media outlets. Twenty-six percent think reader interest should be the top driver of news at traditional media outlets.

Those numbers differ from what voters think is actually happening at both traditional media outlets and social media companies. More than a third of voters think traditional outlets primarily use editor judgment to determine coverage, while 23 percent think social media companies do the same. Just 13 percent think traditional outlets use reader interest to set coverage, 20 percent believe that is true for social media platforms.

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Voters were also pretty clear that they don’t want the government to wade into deciding what shows up on social media platforms, a possibility that was raised when Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) sent a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg asking for details on how the company determines what stories are trending. Just 11 percent of respondents think the federal government has a role to play in determining what shows up, while 58 percent say the social media companies themselves should decide.

The federal government could play a role, though, because Facebook isn’t just a media outlet. It is a way of distributing content, perhaps more similar to cable channels that get auctioned by the Federal Communications Commission. And when voters are reminded about how Facebook and other social media companies can influence content distribution in a way that differs from traditional media outlets, our polling shows they get less comfortable with the idea of Facebook and others determining what is the news.

To test this, we asked half of respondents how comfortable they were with social media companies picking the news they see. We gave the other half an introductory paragraph, explaining that Facebook and others could control what shows up on readers’ digital “doorstep” in a way no private company can control what newspapers get delivered on a road. The group that got the “doorstep” message were less comfortable with social media sites deciding what news shows up. In the control group, 47 percent were comfortable with social media sites picking the news versus 34 percent saying they were uncomfortable. Those numbers moved 6 to 7 points in the opposite direction, a statistically significant margin, when people were given the “doorstep” message. Forty percent said they were comfortable with social media sites picking the news versus 40 percent being uncomfortable.

This poll was conducted from May 13-15, 2016, among a national sample of 2000 registered voters.  See toplines and crosstabs.