People who share news stories on social media sites such as Facebook tend to stay engaged in the news longer than those who simply read it online, especially if their post leads to a deeper discussion of events among their online friends, a new University of Connecticut study shows.
There is little question that Facebook is becoming a popular medium for sharing news. According to recent statistics, over one billion Facebook users are sharing more than 70 billion pieces of content each month, with news stories being the most popular type of external content shared.
Led by assistant professor of communication Anne Oeldorf-Hirsch, the UConn study looked at the ways people are sharing news content on Facebook and whether users felt a greater sense of influence, engagement with the news, and involvement in current affairs by doing so. S. Shyam Sundar, distinguished professor of communications at Penn State University, was co-investigator on the study.
The study found that Facebook’s popular features such as status updates and photo and video sharing make it easy for individuals to post news content on their walls and allow them to experience the benefits of acting as gatekeepers of news and information for others.
The importance of social interaction
But simply sharing news stories publicly on Facebook isn’t enough to significantly increase a person’s sense of engagement or influence among their online community. The study found that individuals are more likely to stay connected to the news, feel more informed, and see themselves as opinion leaders when their posted news content stirs a response from their online network and prompts a thoughtful discussion among friends.
“It is clear from the results that receiving valuable comments to a posted news story is psychologically powerful,” Oeldorf-Hirsch says.
Unlike bloggers, who may feel a sense of empowerment and satisfaction from merely posting content on their website, Facebook users rely much more on the social interaction aspect of the site in reaping its psychological benefits.
“Participants in the study did not feel greater involvement in a news story after posting it initially, and even receiving comments and likes in response to that content did not lead to a greater sense of influence,” Oeldorf-Hirsch says. “Rather, it is the perceived value of those comments that is the key factor in boosting both the participant’s involvement and their sense of influence.”
The results showed that the way Facebook users engage with their online friends about the news also matters. Posting news content publicly on a Facebook wall led to a greater sense of influence and community than sending a link to a news story to friends in a private message. Adding a personal opinion about a news story and asking the network’s opinions about the content resulted in stronger feelings of involvement with the news. Users who tagged specific friends about a news event felt a significantly greater sense of community than those who did not use Facebook’s tagging feature.
“Facebook’s features alone do not exert influence, but it is their potential to draw in one’s network and encourage valuable feedback that makes them powerful,” Oeldorf-Hirsch says.
The study looked at the impact of news sharing among 265 active Facebook users. The participants included students, faculty, and staff from a large U.S. university, and all used CNN’s “Latest News” site for their news content.
The subjects were randomly assigned different tasks ranging from posting a news story on their Facebook page to sending a news story link to a friend in a private message. Some participants were asked to comment on the post or ask their peers a question related to it. Others were asked to tag friends directly in their post. A control group simply selected a news story from CNN and read it without sharing it on Facebook. The participants were then given two questionnaires assessing their engagement with the content and other impressions – one immediately after they filed their post and another a week later.
The findings add a new dimension to the ongoing discussion that social media sites such as Facebook are a waste of time, with limited intellectual value. They also highlight Facebook and other social media sites as possible options for news media looking for ways to increase engagement. Asking individuals to share or express an opinion about a news story via social media might be beneficial to news organizations struggling to keep readers connected to their content, Oeldorf-Hirsch says.
“While Facebook is not yet the most common venue for news, the ability to use the site as a news discussion forum may well make it a powerful platform for news sharing,” Oeldorf-Hirsch writes in the study.
Civic organizations also might benefit from taking greater advantage of the features provided within social media when they launch campaigns or seek to broaden public interest and participation in a particular cause.
Ideally, Oeldorf-Hirsch says, engagement in current events via social media would ultimately lead to greater participation in civic affairs.
The study appears in the Dec. 10, 2014 online issue of the journal Computers in Human Behavior.