In recent years, social media has become the place to find out the latest breaking news. On Twitter, the 140-character site that has become increasingly popular since its inception in 2006, they have something called “Trending Topics.” This is a glimpse into what everyone on the site is talking about. Sometimes, it’s a word or two; other times, it’s a hashtag. Whatever the trending topic of the day might be, a new study reveals that even though most people on Twitter are talking about it, half of those trending topics never make it into traditional news outlets.

In a study carried out by researchers from Universidad Carlos III de Madrid (UC3M), in collaboration with the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, the IMDEA Networks Institute and NEC Laboratories, the trending topics of Twitter were analyzed because they share the same characteristics as news, dealing with events or subjects that attract the attention of a vast number of people.

Over three months in 2013, researchers compiled all of the trending topics on Twitter in 35 countries, as well as an additional 65 countries over the same time frame in 2014. More than 300,000 trending topics generated at different times in different countries were obtained, which allowed the researchers to study the dissemination of the content over different cultures and countries.

"The conclusion we have reached is that the geographic dissemination of news on social networks preserves some of the biases present in the dissemination of traditional news, like the fact that it tends to flow more from rich countries to poor countries," said Rubén Cuevas, a researcher from the UC3M Department of Telematic Engineering, in a press release. "To summarize," he continued, "economic power conditions the dissemination of news on social networks among countries with different languages, while in the case of countries that share the same language, the fundamental conditioning factor is cultural similarity."

For the second part of the study, the researchers used Google News, which detects the trending topics that appear in traditional news outlets. They took four countries — the U.S., Canada, Spain, and the UK — and focused on the number of users and activity on Twitter. "Approximately half of the events included in trending topics are also reported as news in the traditional media, while the other half are subjects that, despite attracting the attention of a large number of Twitter users, do not appear in the media," said the researchers. They used an online version of each country’s main newspaper as reference for their data. They found that in Spain, trending topics are written about 55 percent of the time in traditional news outlets.

Since social media is always in the now, researchers also analyzed who reported the news first — Twitter users or traditional news outlets. "If we look at the news that is reported by both sources, more than 60 percent of it appears first on Twitter, while less than 10 percent appears first in the traditional media (the rest usually appears the same day)," the researchers noted. Though not every tweet contains news, people still gravitate enough toward it to make it a trending topic.

In the U.S., the UK, and Canada, 70 percent of the news first appears on Twitter. As for Spain, the researchers found that Twitter showed the lowest capacity to gather news ahead of traditional news sources. Sixty percent of news first appeared on Twitter, while 10 percent appeared first on traditional media, and 30 percent appeared both in traditional media and Twitter simultaneously.

Source: Juan Miguel Carrascosa, Ruben Cuevas, Roberto Gonzalez, et al. Quantifying the Economic and Cultural Biases of Social Media through Trending Topics. PLOS ONE. 2015.