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Who Gets Their News from Twitter?

November 8, 2013 By

Twitter news consumers are standing out as younger, more mobile and more educated in a new report by the Pew Research Center. Nearly one in 10 U.S. adults get news through Twitter, compared with 30 percent of Americans who get news on Facebook, and according to the report, this population segment carries some other interesting distinctions as well.

According to this study, 45 percent of Twitter news consumers are 18 to 29 years old -- more than twice their percentage of the overall population overall (21 percent). This young demographic also outpaces young adults’ representation among Facebook news consumers, where 34 percent are 18 to 29 years old.

Another distinction of this particular consumer is their mobility. Mobile devices are essential to this sector of consumer, as 85 percent of Twitter news consumers access news from mobile devices, compared with 65 percent of Facebook news consumers.

These consumers' level of education is also higher than average. Those who get their news on Twitter tend to be more educated than the general population and than Facebook news consumers. Four in 10 have at least a bachelor’s degree, compared with 30 percent of Facebook news consumers and 29 percent of the total population.

A Twitter conversation analysis also revealed some interesting tendencies. The Pew Research Center tracked and analyzed Twitter conversations surrounding 10 major news events that occurred between May 2011 and October 2013, on a wide range of topics -- from the Florida trial of George Zimmerman to the Supreme Court hearings on same-sex marriage. This analysis revealed three common characteristics.

The first underscores Twitter's usefulness in passing along breaking news. While opinion is definitely expressed by Twitter users, the study noted that even on polarizing issues, like the verdict in the Zimmerman case, 39 percent of posts just passed along the verdict without adding personal opinion.

The second characteristic shows that opinion on an issue, and consequently the focus of Twitter conversation, can change drastically in a very short time. For example, in the two weeks after the March 2013 Supreme Court hearings regarding gay marriage, 55 percent of tweets related to the issue opposed the idea, where just 32 percent supported it. Yet, in the month that followed, supportive tweets for same-sex marriage were up to 46 percent, while the opposition dropped to 26 percent.

The third trait revealed by the study is that while Twitter sentiment can and sometimes does match public opinion, it is not a reliable method of tracking the sentiments of the general population. For example, Republican candidate Ron Paul dominated positive Twitter sentiment in the period leading up to the presidential primary election in 2012, with 55 percent positive and only 15 percent negative, and yet he failed to secure the nomination of the Republican party.

This report is based first on a survey of more than 5,000 U.S. adults (including 736 Twitter users and 3,268 Facebook users) and, second, on an analysis of Twitter conversations surrounding major news events spanning nearly three years. Twitter posts were analyzed for the information shared, sentiments expressed and ebb and flow of interest.

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