The Digital Revolution Remains Unevenly Distributed

This year’s Digital News Report documents that the digital revolution continues to make uneven progress. First, progress continues to be uneven between countries. Most obvious in our nine-country survey are the digital divides between on the one hand middle-income Brazil with less than 50% of the population online and on the other hand the eight high-income countries, all of which have more than half the population actively using the internet (and many of whom have 80% or more online).

Second, progress remains uneven within countries. Even in affluent, developed democracies like France, Germany, and the United States, about a fifth of the population are not regular internet users, let alone smartphone or tablet owners.

Third, progress takes different forms from country to country, and the 2013 Digital News Survey gives us detailed, comparative data to start mapping the different ways in which people in different countries use digital technologies to access, share, and interact with news. The results reported here make immediately clear that even countries with similarly high levels of internet use and mobile web access in some cases have developed quite different patterns of use, perhaps reflecting different ‘participatory cultures’ – at least when it comes to news.

In this essay, I will highlight some of the most important and interesting similarities and differences in terms of the different forms the digital revolution has taken, focusing in particular on three aspects. First, the global rise of a small number of US-based digital intermediaries in the form of Google, Facebook, and – to a lesser extent – Apple. Second, differences in terms of the importance of brand names, search engines, and social networking sites as gateways to news in different countries. Third, the more pronounced differences in terms of how actively people in different countries – even different countries with similarly high levels of internet use and the like – share news, comment on news, or otherwise engage online with current affairs.

The rise of global digital intermediaries

Google and Facebook, a fifteen-year-old search engine company and a social networking service that has only just turned nine, have become key parts of the news media ecology in every country covered in this report. In the growing markets for smartphones and tablets and accompanying application distribution platforms (like the App Store and Google Play), Apple plays a dominant role in several countries, though competing device manufacturers like Samsung and competing operating systems like Google’s Android means that the mobile market is significantly less concentrated than search or social networking services.

Given the central importance of search and social networking services as gateways to news, and the growing importance of mobile platforms, these dominant digital intermediaries occupy increasingly important positions as new gatekeepers online.1 (Much talk of disintermediation aside, much of the success of these companies is based precisely on their role as some of the most significant intermediaries between media users and the content and services they access.)

Reliable data on the market share of Google, Facebook, and Apple in various countries is not easily available, but estimates produced by market intelligence companies tracking the search, social networking, and mobile markets gives an indication of their position, and our survey adds new details. The search engine optimisation company webcertain, for example, estimates that Google’s search engine market share is between 87% (Italy) and 97% (Denmark) in the six Western European countries covered here.2 In Brazil, the company is equally dominant. On its home turf in the United States, Google accounts for about two-thirds of search and faces competition from both Microsoft’s Bing (16%) and Yahoo (13%). Only Japan is an outlier in this respect, as Yahoo! Japan continues to be largest search engine there with a market share of approximately 50% – well ahead of Google’s 40% share. (Since 2010, however, Yahoo! Japan has actually used Google’s search engine to power its search results.) Google has thus come to dominate market for search across the world, and as a consequence attracts a very large share of global online advertising – more than 40% according to a recent estimate.3

Though overall growth in the number of active users seems to have tapered off in many developed democracies, Facebook seems to be approaching a similarly dominant position in the market for social networking services. With the exception of Germany, where Facebook penetration is only about 36% of the online population, the social media monitoring and marketing company Socialbakers estimates that the California-based social networking site in early 2013 served between 49% (France) and 66% (Italy) of the online population of the six Western European countries covered here.4 Reach is similarly high in Brazil, where an estimated 72% of the online population are active Facebook users and in the US, where about 62% of the online population are active users. Again, Japan is an outlier, with the local network Mixi as the market leader with about 25% of the online population as active users and Facebook number two with about 15%. With this one exception, Facebook is by far the most important social networking site in the countries we cover.

The markets for smartphones and tablets are so far less concentrated than the markets for search and for social networking services. Figure 4.1 provides data on the percentage of the population in each of the nine countries covered here who are internet users, who are smartphone users, and who are tablet users. In italics, the table includes the share of smartphone and tablet users who report they use Apple devices.

(Interestingly, the smartphone + tablet market is the only sector mapped here where one of the globally dominant US-based companies has as strong a position in Japan as elsewhere.) Apple continues to be a hugely important player in mobile markets and its tight control over its App Store and iTunes platforms continues to represent content providers, including news organisations, with a range of strategic challenges. But the company’s early near-total dominance of both the smartphone and the tablet markets has been broken by competition in terms of hardware from companies like Samsung and in terms of operating systems and application distribution platforms by Google’s aggressive move into mobile.

Internet, smartphone, and tablet use (with Apple market shares)

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  UK Ger Spa Ita Fra Den US Bra Jap
Internet 84% 83% 67% 58% 80% 90% 78% 46% 80%
Smartphone 42% 36% 37% 24% 33% 55% 36% 20% 21%
Tablet 24% 15% 15% 13% 16% 32% 22% 14% 10%
Apple phone share 40% 26% 25% 33% 34% 48% 43% 29% 58%
Apple table market share 64% 50% 41% 43% 53% 81% 57% 40% 69%

Q8a:  Which, if any, of the following devices do you ever use for any purpose?’

Base: All markets UK (n=2078) US (n=2028) Spain (n=979) Japan (n=978) Italy (n=965) Germany (n=1062) France (n=973) Denmark (n=1007) Urban Brazil (n=985)

Percentages of smartphone use and tablet use are calculated as parts of the total population. Data on internet use from YouGov.

How many people are on the internet, how many people have mobile web access, and what people do online varies in important and sometimes pronounced ways from country to country. But a limited number of US-based digital intermediaries have, through a combination of powerful algorithms, shrewd harnessing of economies of scale and network effects, and good design, come to occupy key positions online across the globe.

Varying gateways to news

The rise of new global digital intermediaries like Google, Facebook, and Apple influence the flow of traffic online and increase the competition for digital advertising, often putting pressure on industry incumbents like newspapers and broadcasters historically accustomed to exercising considerable market power as key intermediaries between advertisers and audiences. In particular in the European Union, where these US-based companies are frequently more dominant than they are at home, their rise has worried publishers’ associations, advocacy groups, and various regulators concerned primarily with competition, data protection, and privacy issues.

But how important are these new digital intermediaries actually, compared to established players, when it comes to how people find news online? This year’s Digital News Report provides useful comparative data on this question, summarised in Figure 4.2 below.

Brands, search, and social as gateways to news online

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  UK Ger Spa Ita Fra Den US Bra Jap
Branded sites 34% 32% 38% 35% 16% 55% 20% 47% 28%
Search 24% 40% 40% 49% 45% 30% 33% 44% 39%
Social networks 17% 15% 45% 38% 14% 22% 30% 60% 12%

Q10: Thinking about how you FIND news online, which are the main ways that you come across news stories?

Base: All markets UK (n=2078) US (n=2028) Spain (n=979) Japan (n=978) Italy (n=965) Germany (n=1062) France (n=973) Denmark (n=1007) Urban Brazil (n=985)

The survey results reveal a number of similarities but also interesting and important differences in terms of how people find news online. In general, there is no question that search and social media are becoming increasingly important gateways to news, supplementing users going directly to branded sites – but they are not equally important in all countries.

First of all, branded websites (of news organisations like broadcasters, newspapers, or online-only providers) remain an important gateway to news. In most of Western Europe, about a third of the respondents report that going directly to sites like the BBC or the Daily Mail Online in the UK or El Mundo or El Pais in Spain is amongst the main ways they come across news online. In France, branded sites are particularly weak, whereas in Denmark branded sites, most notably those of the public service broadcaster DR and the country’s leading tabloid Ekstrabladet, draw large numbers of online news users. In Brazil, our urban survey respondents rate branded sites one of their main gateways to news, whereas branded sites appear weaker in both the US and Japan.

Second, there are some clear differences in terms of how many online news users name search engines as amongst their main gateway to news, and these differences do not correlate in any simple way with either the market share of a given search engine (like Google) or the overall ICT development index of the country in question. Search engines (by virtue of its market share almost invariably Google) represent the most widely named gateway to news online across much of Central and Southern Europe, with between 40% (Germany) and 49% (Italy) of online news users naming search as the main way in which they come across news stories. (It is noteworthy that publishers from these countries are also amongst those who have been most vocally concerned about Google’s dominant position.) Amongst urban online Brazilians and Japanese internet users, search engines are equally important, whereas they are slightly less so in Denmark, the UK, and the US.

Third, the differences between the nine countries are even more pronounced when it comes to social networking sites as gateways to news. Social networks (predominantly Facebook) represent the most widely used way of finding news online for urban Brazilian internet users, and a widely used gateway in the US (30%), Italy (38%), and Spain (45%). In all these countries, social networking sites, a signature ‘web 2.0’-phenomenon, are by now significantly more important than more ‘web 1.0’-like phenomena like aggregators and portals such as Yahoo and MSN as ways of accessing news.

In contrast, only between 14% (France) and 22% (Denmark) of respondents across the rest of Western Europe name social networking sites as one of the main ways of accessing news online. (Comparison across age groups suggests, however, that different generations have partially different approaches to finding news online – branded sites and search seem about equally important for all but younger demographics use social networking sites more, also for news.)

Different participatory cultures

One question is how people access news online, another is what they do with it. The digital revolution has been accompanied by much speculation about the interactive and participatory potentials of new technologies that allow people to share, comment, and create their own content. So far, it has been less clear who – and how many – actually embrace and realise these possibilities, and whether they do it when it comes to news specifically.

Here, the findings from this year’s Digital News Report are particularly interesting as they document a much lower level of overall engagement than some might have expected, as well as significant differences from country to country, suggesting the existence of different ‘participatory cultures’.5 Figure 4.3 collects the main findings regarding how people share, comment on, and create news online.

Sharing, commenting, and creating news

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  UK Germany Spain Italy France Denmark US Urban Brazil Japan
Share via email 10% 10% 24% 19% 18% 10% 23% 32% 4%
Share via Social Network 11% 8% 30% 33% 14% 13% 22% 44% 8%
Comment via Social network 10% 8% 27% 26% 10% 11% 21% 38% 7%
Write a news blog 1% 2% 3% 5% 2% 2% 4% 5% 4%
Talk with friends 44% 39% 55% 50% 34% 49% 51% 43% 17%

Q13: During an average week in which, if any, of the following ways do you share or participate in news coverage? Multiple answers allowed, only some responses included here.

Base: All markets UK (n=2078) US (n=2028) Spain (n=979) Japan (n=978) Italy (n=965) Germany (n=1062) France (n=973) Denmark (n=1007) Urban Brazil (n=985)

First of all, it is striking that, even amongst our survey respondents (online news users) and in countries like the UK or the US, where about two-thirds of all internet users are also Facebook users, talking with friends and colleagues about news in offline social settings is far and away the most widespread form of ‘participatory news use’. (Going beyond our sample of online adults, this is arguably even more so.)

Second, it is clear the online forms of sharing, commenting on, and writing about news remain minority pursuits in every single one of the nine countries covered here – even amongst our sample of online news users, and even in countries like Denmark, Germany, Japan, the UK, and the US, where internet use has been a majority phenomenon for a decade or more.

Most of our respondents presumably use email routinely, yet only between 4% (Japan) and 32% (amongst urban Brazilians online) use email during an average week to share news stories with others. In a few countries (Brazil, Italy) sharing and commenting on news via social networking sites is more widespread, but generally, this is not the case, though between half and two-thirds of the online population are Facebook users in many of these countries. Moving up the ladder of participation to more individual and typically more time-consuming forms of content production like writing a personal blog, only a small minority engages in such activities on a regular basis.

Looking at these numbers in light of standard indicators of ICT development like the International Telecommunications Union’s IDI, it is clear that online participation is not related in any simple way to the domestication and ubiquity of digital technologies themselves. Denmark has higher levels of internet penetration, broadband access, smartphone usage, and tablet ownership than, for example, the US, and yet also has significantly lower levels of people sharing, commenting, and producing news online.

Indeed, the US stands out in this year’s survey, as it did in the 2012 RISJ Digital News Report, as having a far more widespread participatory culture online than most Western European countries, even those with higher levels of internet access. Japan, by contrast, has particularly low degrees of popular participation in sharing, commenting on, and creating news content online, despite being one of the most technological advanced countries in the world (in a way, this should be no surprise as the low number of Japanese reporting that they talk with friends and colleagues about news offline suggests low levels of interest in sharing at the outset). The results from Brazil, Italy, and Spain all point to more widespread participation online, though the numbers in all these countries have to be treated with some caution due to the lower levels of overall internet penetration in each, suggesting our respondents differ more from the general population there than elsewhere.


The results reported here document that the digital revolution is making uneven progress in several respects. While the rise of a few US-based digital intermediaries with global reach is a phenomenon that cuts across all the countries covered here, there are some significant differences in what people do online, both in terms of how people in different countries find news and in terms of the proportion of the online population in each country who actively engage with news by sharing it, commenting on it, or creating it themselves.

Throughout, it is important to keep in mind that despite decades of ongoing digitisation, news media use remains overwhelmingly cross-platform, a mix of digital and analogue, of broadcast, internet, and often also print – even amongst the youngest demographics surveyed here (18 to 24 and 25 to 34), online-only news use is a minority phenomenon and mixed-media use the norm. But the overall direction of travel is clear. Digital is growing ever-more important, analogue less so, more and more ‘old media’ are being rapidly digitised not only in production but also in terms of transmission and use. In the process, they are often transformed – even if sometimes in unexpected ways.

Assessing the democratic implications of these differences and explaining the different ways in which online news usage has developed in different countries will be a central part of understanding how journalism and democracy function in an increasingly digital media environment. Clearly, technology alone does not drive these developments. In future reports, we will continue to track both the similarities and differences in how these tendencies develop across the world.

  1. Robin Foster, News Plurality in a Digital World (RISJ, 2012).
  5. Henry Jenkins, amongst others, has offered the notion of ‘participatory culture’ as a complement to existing notions of ‘consumer cultures’ to capture cultural practices that combine low barriers to expression and engagement, high levels of sharing and user-creation, and a shared feeling that participation makes sense. Needless to say, such cultures can be rooted in many types of social communities and need not follow national boundaries, even though our data show that national differences exist in participatory practices concerning news use online. See e.g. Henry Jenkins et al., Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture (NML, 2006).