It’s no secret people are increasingly getting their news from social media. Almost two-thirds of Americans cite Twitter and Facebook as a source for news, according to a recent Pew survey. 

Now the research centre has published a further examination into the average behaviour of Twitter users in the US – not only those who are the most active, but also those who tweet less often.

“We wanted a finer-grained understanding of how they use Twitter for news,” explained authors Michael Barthel and Elisa Shearer in the report, “not only whether they tweet about news and follow news organizations, but also what news topics they tweet about, and how many news media accounts they follow”.

According to Twitter, a third (33 per cent) of its total active users are based in the US.

A separate Pew study into social media habits in the US, published earlier this year, showed Twitter is the fifth most popular social network in the US, behind Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest and Instagram.

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In the UK, Twitter is the second most popular social network, according to to the recent Ofcom 2015 Communications Market Report, behind Facebook but ahead of LinkedIn, Google+, Instagram and Pinterest.

Barthel and Shearer analysed more than 6,500 tweets posted by a representative sample of 176 Twitter users between August 2014 and February 2015, as well as posts from more than 10,000 accounts followed by these users.

What do Americans tweet about?

According to the report, the three most popular news topics for Americans on Twitter are entertainment (28 per cent of news tweets), sports (25 per cent), and government and politics (17 per cent). 

Within the sample, more than half (54 per cent) of Twitter users tweeted about news, defined as posts about information and events outside their network of family and friends.

Those who tweeted about news also appeared to be more engaged around current affairs in general, with news tweets making up almost half (48 per cent) of their total Twitter output during the research period.

Just over a third (39 per cent) of news tweets contained the user’s opinion, with most simply reporting or passing on information, hence the high proportion of retweets.

However, most Twitter users within the sample tweeted sporadically at best, with most tweeting less than a few times a week.

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Ferguson was the news story Americans tweeted about most in 2014, according to  research firm Echelon Insights.

Its data showed huge activity spikes around both the shooting of Michael Brown in August, and the grand jury’s decision in November not to indict the police officer who shot him, Darren Wilson.

The midterm elections, State of the Union address and Ebola outbreak also featured highly.

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Police shootings also featured highly in the UK’s most tweeted news stories of 2014, according to Twitter – specifically an inquest jury’s lawful killing verdict regarding the death of Mark Duggan in 2011.

The two most-tweeted stories were the missing Malaysia Airlines aircraft MH370 and the Scottish referendum, followed by #Duggan.

Sharing news

 When it comes to tweeting about news, retweets figure more highly than they do for other tweets, Barthel and Shearer found. 

Three-in-ten of the average user’s tweets were retweets. However, when people tweeted about news this proportion was much higher, with retweets accounting for nearly half of their posts.

 This is likely down to Twitter’s reputation as a platform for breaking news, and the fact that retweeting something is often quicker than adding your own comment if you want to share something fast.abi-social-media4.png

People who tweeted about news tended to follow and be followed by a greater number of accounts than the overall study sample.

On average, users followed 319 accounts and had 324 followers. Those tweeting about news, however, on average followed 431 accounts and had 501 followers. 

However, there’s no breakdown of how many users in Pew’s sample are journalists, which would likely be a factor in how often they tweet news, how many news account they follow and whether they have a higher number of followers.

News tweets were also more likely to contain a photo or a link than other tweets, but hashtag usage remained much the same.

This is despite Vivian Schiller, Twitter’s former head of news, suggesting in 2014 that hashtags may be phased out, although there hasn’t been much word on that since.

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Who do they follow?

Whereas news accounts were a relatively small proportion of the accounts followed by Twitter users in Pew’s sample, tweets from news media were a “significant portions” of a user’s home feed – most likely due to the frequency with which these accounts tweet as opposed to family and friends.

Entertainment, sport and lifestyle accounts made up the highest proportion of account followed by the average user (35 per cent of total accounts followed).

This was followed by non-public figures such as family and friends, and political news media such as @MSNBC and radio and TV host @seanhannity.

Despite this, around a third of users’ Twitter feeds were made up of political news media (23 per cent) and other news media (10 per cent).

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Conclusion

The report shows that while Americans on Twitter are interested in entertainment news and sport, national and international news still features highly both in what they tend to follow and the topics they tend to tweet about.

Facebook may be the biggest social network in America, but Pew’s findings suggest Twitter remains better suited to consuming and sharing news.

The immediacy of Twitter, and the fact that its timeline is chronological and easy to search, makes it a far better tool for posting real-time updates in response to ongoing events, whether that’s breaking news or an event of national significance such as the State of the Union address.

However, with Facebook making a concerted effort to entice publishers to its platform through Instant Articles and the recently announced updates to Notes which are designed to make them more of a blogging tool, the tables could potentially turn in the not-so-distant future.