As we have previously written, the Pew Research Center found in 2016 that 62% of American adults consumed news on social media to some extent.

In September of 2017, the Pew Center updated its research, finding that, in 2017, about 67% or two-thirds of American adults are reporting getting “at least some of their news on social media,” a 5% increase from last year.

According to the research, this 5% growth was driven by more substantial increases among certain demographic groups. The research shows that 55% of American adults over 50 now consume news on social media sites, up from 45% in 2016. The research also reports that 74% of non-white Americans get news on social media sites in 2017, up from 64% in 2016. Last, there was an increase among those with less than a bachelor’s degree getting news from social media, to 69%, compared to 60% previously.

Despite all the headlines and studies on social media’s role in spreading fake news and its influence on public opinion, the majority of the public does not seem to plan to stop reading news on social media any time soon.  However, some optimistic leaders of the traditional news media see fake news as an opportunity to highlight the integrity of mainstream media.

According to a recent report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, only 24% of people believe social media does a good job of separating fact from fiction, compared to 40% for mainstream media.  A lead author of the report stated that “fake news could be the best thing that has happened to journalism in a long while” because public trust in the traditional news media is still twice as much as that in social media.  This can be viewed as “an opportunity to re-establish the value of mainstream brands and focus on quality.”

The report noted that the fake news controversy has led to an increase in digital subscriptions to news organizations in the US, and 16% of Americans are ready to pay for news compared with 9% in the past.

Therefore, in spite of the growing prevalence of using social media for news consumption, the public appears somewhat skeptical of the information received from social media sources. This disconnect makes social media a double-edged sword, especially for traditional media companies that wish to restore the value of their brands.  On the one hand, social media is extremely valuable and has arguably become a necessity for marketing purposes and for sharing news and information.  On the other hand, media outlets need to think carefully about how to establish and maintain public trust in their social media presence.

According to the Pew Center, social media is, unsurprisingly, a common pathway for online news consumers to gain exposure to the news provided by traditional media, and many Americans consume news from both types of sources.  But when people gain access to a news article by following a link provided on social media, source recognition is a lot lower than when the link comes directly from a news organization’s emails, texts, or alerts.  Therefore, extra efforts to emphasize the source of content that is shared through social media may help reinforce the confidence of online users in the information they are viewing.

These concerns apply beyond the media context to any company that is participating in online communities and engaging with the public through social media. We have seen time and again the social media missteps that have landed companies in the headlines.  Some may still have faith in the old saying that “there’s no such thing as bad publicity,” but an ill-advised Tweet can spread like wildfire and attract intense public criticism.  And in the shifting landscape of fake news, a company may become the center of a social media scandal even through no fault of its own, as the target of an imposter or prank account.

Further, messages and content can easily be misunderstood, taken out of context, or manipulated when they are filtered through multiple layers of re-sharing across a variety of platforms. This “telephone game” effect can harm a brand’s online reputation in ways that can be hard to quantify or track.  Keeping a finger on the pulse of your company’s social media reputation by monitoring search results and mentions is a proactive way to stay in front of potential social media snafus.

Companies today, including traditional media outlets, are faced with the opportunity and challenge to differentiate themselves from the fake news, trolls, and pranksters that plague the online world, while still taking advantage of the tools that social media platforms provide. Successfully walking this tight rope requires constant online vigilance and a firm grasp of the risks and benefits associated with using social media.  A love and hate relationship, indeed.