Facebook sharing can boost involvement with news and information

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- People who share news on social media sites may connect more with that information -- and stay connected longer -- than people who casually read the news, according to a team of researchers.

"There seems to be growing concern that young people may be becoming more disengaged, particularly from mainstream media sources, and be more out-of-touch," said S. Shyam Sundar, Distinguished Professor of Communications and co-director of the Media Effects Research Laboratory, Penn State. "However, sharing and discussing news content on social media sites like Facebook can actually drive greater involvement with news and information."

The researchers studied whether the way Facebook users shared links to news stories with their friends affected how involved they remained with the stories. Feedback from friends appears to drive the connection, said Anne Oeldorf-Hirsch, assistant professor of communication, University of Connecticut, who worked with Sundar on the study.

"One of the main findings of this study is that engagement in news stories through social media requires discussion with friends on the site," said Oeldorf-Hirsch. "Sharing the story does not increase involvement beyond just reading it on the original news website. Increased involvement depends on valuable feedback from friends."

How users perceive the feedback is important, according to the researchers.

"Simply receiving likes or superficial comments from a lot of friends is not sufficient," Sundar said. "Feedback ought to be perceived as relevant, thoughtful and engaging, in order to make Facebook users feel like they are involved in the story and influential in their network."

While reporters and editors once served as gatekeepers for information, social media sites are increasingly allowing users to serve as their own gatekeepers, according to the researchers. The rewards of serving as an opinion leader may reinforce future sharing.

"By sharing news of interest to their friends and engaging them, the users reap the benefits of greater interest and involvement in that content themselves," said Oeldorf-Hirsch. "Those sharing stories also gain a sense of influence, which could drive them to become opinion leaders in their networks."

Users who asked questions, rather than ones who just posted the material, or made a statement about the content, significantly increased involvement with the information, according to the researchers.

"When you ask for your friends' opinions, you get them more involved than when you just state your own opinion," said Sundar.

Developers of social media sites may want to encourage not just sharing, but facilitating discussions about the content their users share, according to the researchers, who report their findings in an upcoming issue of Computers in Human Behavior that is currently available online.

"Involvement was significantly greater when those sharing the story asked a question about it rather than stating their own opinion," said Oeldorf-Hirsch. "So one recommendation may be to encourage users not only to share news stories, but to ask questions about them, or ask their friends' opinions about them."

People who shared a story tended to stay more involved with the material for a longer period compared to participants who just read the story, Sundar said. The participants who shared stories felt significantly more involved with the content a week later, he added.

A total of 265 active Facebook users with a median of 400 friends each took part in the study. The participants were randomly assigned to 14 different sharing conditions. Researchers monitored the posts, as well as the reactions to their posts.

Depending on the conditions that were assigned, the subjects were asked to share a story from CNN's Latest News section on their own Facebook page, on a page of a friend who might be interested in the link, or through a direct message to the interested friend. In some cases, the participants added a question, or a statement with the shared link, and tagged their friends.

The researchers said that future studies could try to find better ways to use social media, such as Facebook, as sites for civic engagement.

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Last Updated February 19, 2015