/ 17 June 2023

Online news participation dwindles

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Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Fewer people are participating in online news than in the recent past — and those who do are less representative of the broader market.

This is according to the 2023 edition of the Reuters Institute Digital News Report, released this week, which analyses consumer behaviour across 46 markets, including South Africa.

In recent years, the report noted, there has been a rise of passive news consumers (from 42% in 2018 to 47% in 2023) and a substantial fall in active participation (from 33% in 2018 to 22% in 2023).

The report classes active news consumers as those who comment and post. There has also been a rise in reactive participants — who read, like or share news online — from 25% in 2018 to 31% in 2023.

In South Africa, the percentage of active news consumers is substantially higher than the global average at 42%, while 23% are passive participants. 

“Of course, news participation varies considerably across countries and regions,” the report notes. 

There are higher overall trends of participation in African, South East Asian and Latin American markets, and much lower participatory trends in markets in central and northern Europe, North America and East Asia.

Active news consumers, according to the report, are now more likely to be men, higher educated and politically partisan. This means that, while this group has declined to less than a quarter of news users, it increasingly looks like the (unrepresentative) traditional news audience.

In the UK and the US, the proportion of active consumers has fallen by about 10 percentage points since 2016, according to the report. In the UK, only around one in 10 actively participates in online news. However, their activities seem to heavily influence the mainstream media agenda and shape wider debates, according to the report.

The report tracks a peak in news sharing in some markets between 2016 and 2019, apparently driven by Facebook and by divisive events, such as the election of Donald Trump as US president and Brexit

“But, since then, online participation has shifted to some extent into closed networks such as WhatsApp, Signal, Telegram and Discord, where people can have private or semi-private conversations with trusted friends in a less toxic atmosphere.”

In the social media age, the report notes, “shareability” has become central to how digital news is produced, consumed and distributed. “However, it is often unclear to what extent online news users actually embrace these forms of participation.”

According to the data on news sharing over time, there has been a rise in news sharing via private messaging apps — from 17% in 2018 to 22% in 2023 — even amid steady declines in open forms of sharing. Across all markets since 2018, sharing news stories via social networks has steadily decreased, on average, from 26% to 19%, and sharing via email is down from 12% to 7%.

The report’s findings suggest that public debate is becoming more constrained. This is as the vocal minority actively engaging online becomes increasingly unrepresentative and as social media platforms, such as Meta, become less geared towards news.

“These trends raise new questions surrounding what participation and engagement mean in an increasingly online but less openly participatory news environment,” the report notes, adding that the trend may be less about declining levels of participation than about the changed nature of participation.