Unpacking news participation and online engagement over time

While internet users do have more means of digital participation than ever before, it has been less clear whether people in practice use it to actively participate in their news environments.

THE digital age, and particularly the rise of social media, was initially associated with a utopian vision of global media access and participation.

While internet users do have more means of digital participation than ever before, it has been less clear whether people in practice use it to actively participate in their news environments.

Now, as publishers and journalists increasingly worry about news avoidance and disengagement, they are also grappling with a “new normal” of more online but often less openly participatory news users. Smaller proportions of the public are participating with news actively (22% via posting and commenting), while growing numbers either participate reactively (31% via reading, liking, or sharing) or simply do not participate with news at all (47%).

Online and offline participation is not an either/or proposition, as talking face to face about news (while also falling over time) even in an increasingly digital media environment remains, on average, the most widely reported form of news participation, at 32%.

Participation in public life and debate is often considered a central element of civic engagement in democratic societies. It matters, then, both how (and how much) people are participating in these debates as well as who is shaping them.

In this chapter, we offer a deeper dive into news participation and online engagement. How do people participate with news, and how have these trends changed over time?

And in what public discourse often depicts as a toxic or divisive digital environment, and where a significant number of users face very serious harassment, hate speech and worse, how does the general public actually feel about engaging with news or talking about politics?

While negative online news experiences — and the very real, and often unequal, problems they are a result of — are important, we find they are not most respondents’ experience. Yet many nonetheless feel they must be wary of what they say as online and offline discourse become increasingly constrained.

Changing news participation and the rise of the passive consumer

For many years, we have tracked how people share or participate in news coverage during an average week. Looking at segmentations of those who engage with online news actively (by posting or commenting), reactively (by reading, liking, or sharing), and passively (by consuming news but not participating at all), in recent years we can see the rise of the passive news consumer (up 5 percentage points, on average, from 42% in 2018 to 47% in 2023) and reactive participator (up 6pp, from 25% to 31%) alongside a substantial fall in active participation (down 11pp, from 33% to 22%).

Active participators are now more likely to be men, higher educated, more politically partisan, and more interested in news — so while this group has declined to less than a quarter of news users, it increasingly looks like the (unrepresentative) traditional news audience.

Segmentations of news participation over time

Why do we see falls in open and active sharing alongside rises in passive consumption? There are a number of possible reasons.

In part, it may be due to broader changes in which social networks people around the world are using for news — for example, falling Facebook use in general and particularly among younger audiences alongside Meta’s shift in focus away from news, and the increasing popularity of private messaging apps especially in Latin American, Asia-Pacific, and Eastern European markets.

Other factors, including less optimism about or novelty surrounding the participatory opportunities of social media, may also be at play.

Of course, news participation varies considerably across countries and regions.

For instance, we find 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.

It is important to note here that data from India and African markets are representative of younger, more educated English speakers — and thus, participation may be higher among these groups than the national population. However, it is likely that these trends reflect both sample differences as well as media environments with high reliance on and adoption of social networks.

For instance, a third of people are active participators in Thailand (36%), where social media is by far the most important gateway to news, versus one in ten in Denmark (10%), where direct brand connections remain much stronger.

When we focus on individual forms of news participation, we find steady decreases over time for most forms of public participation with news, both online (eg liking, sharing, and commenting on news on social media) as well as offline (eg talking about the news with friends and colleagues). In the social media age, “shareability” has become central to how digital news is produced, consumed and (re)distributed. However, it is often unclear to what extent online news users actually embrace these forms of participation.

Our data on news sharing over time also show one closed form of sharing — via private messaging apps — growing, even amid steady declines in open forms of sharing and commenting as well as other closed 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%. Meanwhile, sharing news stories via messaging apps has increased, on average, from 17% to 22%.


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