Beyond Social Media news use algorithms: How political discussion and network heterogeneity clarify incidental news exposure Articles uri icon

publication date

  • May 2021

start page

  • 633

end page

  • 650


  • 3


  • 45

International Standard Serial Number (ISSN)

  • 1468-4527

Electronic International Standard Serial Number (EISSN)

  • 1468-4535


  • Traditionally, most readers' news access and consumption were based on direct intentional news seeking behavior. However, in recent years the emergence and popularization of social media platforms have enabled new opportunities for citizens to be incidentally informed about public affairs and politics as by-product of using these platforms. This article seeks to shed light on how socio-political conversation attributes may explain incidental exposure to information. Drawing on US and UK survey data, the authors explore the role of political discussion and discussion network heterogeneity in predicting individuals' levels of incidental exposure to news. Furthermore, the authors also test the role of social media news use as a moderator. A hierarchical OLS regression analysis with incidental news exposure as dependent variable was conducted as well as analyses of moderation effects (heterogeneity*social media and political discussion*social media) using the PROCESS macro in SPSS. Findings reveal that heterogeneous networks are positively related to incidental news exposure in the UK, while sheer level of political discussion is a positive influence over incidental news exposure in the US. Social media news use moderates the relationship between political discussion and incidental news exposure in the UK. That is, those who are highly exposed to news on social media and discuss less often about politics and public affairs, they tend to be incidentally exposed to news online the most. Meanwhile, the interaction of social media news and discussion heterogeneity showed significant results in the US with those exhibiting high levels of both also receiving the biggest share of INE. This study contributes to closing research gaps regarding how and when people are inadvertently exposed to news in two Western societies. By highlighting that beyond the fate of algorithmic information treatment by social media platforms, discussion antecedents as well as social media news use play an integral part in predicting incidental news exposure, the study unravels fundamental conditions underlying the incidental news exposure phenomenon.


  • incidental news exposure; social media; political discussion; discussion heterogeneity