Social media is now established as one of the most powerful tools in the modern world and that power is on display more than ever, particularly in the realm of news. A recent report from the Reuters Institute has revealed that TikTok influencers and Instagram celebrities are increasingly taking over from journalists as young people’s main news outlets.

Generations of people have received updates on what’s going on in the world from established news organizations and outlets, but now that role is being challenged as influencers are gaining a foothold in the distribution of news updates.

Displacement of Mainstream Media

The report found that 55% of TikTok and Snapchat users now get their news from “personalities” whereas 33-42% get it from mainstream media and journalists on those platforms. The figures collated were based on interviews from 94,000 people across 46 different countries conducted for the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

The report was damning of high-profile journalists’ inability to retain their audience which has dwindled in the face of more relatable and often interpretive content, but the implications of this phenomenon reach wider than simply fewer people buying newspapers and watching the 10 o’clock news bulletin. 

The Call for Change in Traditional News Outlets

Many have suggested the report should serve as a wake-up call to more typical formats of news outlets to change old habits that don’t serve the new generation. This in itself was hinted at in the report which suggested that mainstream journalists struggle to grab the attention of users of newer apps and social media tools and that independent journalists are often bearing the brunt of fallout from the mainstream media’s practices.

The report stated: “While mainstream journalists often lead conversations around news in Twitter and Facebook, they struggle to get attention in newer networks like Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok.” It added: “A strong supply of accurate, well-funded, independent journalism remains critical, but in many of the countries covered in our survey, we find these conditions challenged by low levels of trust, declining engagement, and an uncertain business environment.”

Reuters Institute director Rasmus Kleis Nielsen was also highlighting her concerns about the trends highlighted in the report and the alarming reality it presents for the institution of news media. “Legacy media… now face a continual transformation of digital as generations come of age who eschew direct discovery for all but the most appealing brands, (and) have little interest in many conventional news offers oriented towards older generations’ habits, interests, and values,” he said.

Global Prevalence of Influencer News Dissemination

This tendency for young people to source their news updates from social media is not just limited to a few countries as the report indicates. Influencers active in cities across the world are becoming news sources.

Opheli Garcia Lawler calls attention to the fact that influencers discuss and embody such a wide range of interests nowadays that it becomes much easier for them to appeal to the younger generation on social media apps than the often dogmatic content of certain mainstream news outlets.

“Influencers are the living embodiment of our capitalist-consumption craze, with social media posts that can sway you to do anything from buy a $200 red light face wand to invest in an entirely fraudulent form of currency. There are influencers for every kind of person and interest. You’ve got the classic travel and food types posting photos that inspire wanderlust and watering taste buds, the bikini influencers, the video game influencers. If it is something you can spend money on, there’s someone out there encouraging you to do so,” she said.

“As a market, influencing is a $13.8 billion industry—which means there are a lot of influencers out there who you might encounter on your next trip,” she added. In the same report, she cited a study that determined the most popular cities for influencers relative to their size. The figures were calculated based on the total number of influencers in each city and the square miles of the city.

Top of the list was Santiago, Chile which had 150 influencers per square mile and just squeezing into the top ten was Taipei of Taiwan with 37 influencers per square mile. This might seem like quite a drop off in quantity from first to tenth but the sheer distance between the locations goes to show the scale and potential of the developments in news trends and the impact of the sway influencers could have on the younger generation. 

The Shift in Newsroom Focus: From In-depth Research to Influencer Content

The scale of their impact is best shown by Greta Thunberg’s rise to prominence in the climate change activist community. She has become the embodiment of a generation focused on one goal: saving our planet. While the cause is noble and has merit, there is cause for concern in how she was able to achieve such a foothold and legitimacy in the community over researchers, scientists, and even formerly prominent lobbyists who have dedicated their lives to the cause. Thunberg found herself on news stations, magazine covers, social media posts, anywhere climate change was the topic, there she was.

Editors used to put innovators and game-changers in prominent positions based on plenty of in-depth research but now as a byproduct of social media opt for people like Greta. While plenty of the points she raises do have merit, the trend to rely on influencers is a concerning one. If not done on personal channels to release unique and interesting content to their own audiences, influencers’ content is often used by outlets as a way to get clicks and reach more people from your intended audience. Newsrooms now find themselves trapped in the social media vortex trying to remain relevant as accurate and balanced discussion becomes inherently less reliable as a result.

Potential Pitfalls and Dangers of Influencer-led Journalism

Social media now sets the tone for nuanced debate and that’s a dangerous precedent to set when you consider the personal motivations involved such as revenue streams; saying what is perceived to be the wrong thing could have dire consequences for an influencer’s income and so what becomes the priority? Being accurate? Or keeping your followers happy?

They might be less susceptible to corruption as a result because of the need for them to ensure the security of their commercial product. However, it does not prevent them from providing potentially inaccurate accounts of significant world events that shape discourse in the long-term and that presents a huge danger to our society if left unchecked.