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Elon Musk’s Social Media Following Eclipses CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News Viewership Combined

Last Updated March 25, 2024 5:16 PM
James Morales
Last Updated March 25, 2024 5:16 PM

Key Takeaways

  • Elon Musk has nearly 180 million followers on X and his posts are regularly viewed tens of millions of times.
  • Meanwhile, cable news viewership has declined significantly.
  • In 2023, none of the major cable networks consistently drew an audience of above 2 million.

While it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact moment online platforms overtook cable news as Americans’ preferred source of information, the prevalence of digital media is now undeniable.

Among the most prolific cheerleaders of post-television news, Elon Musk argues that X, the social media platform he bought in 2022, has made 20th-century mass media giants all but irrelevant. Considering his own X profile has nearly 180 million followers, Musk’s belief is somewhat justified, as that figure dwarfs the number of regular primetime cable news viewers.

How Many People Still Watch Cable News?

In February 2024, the most popular cable news show among American audiences – The Five on Fox News – averaged 3.1 million viewers per episode.

While the channel’s primetime viewership declined by 20% compared to the same period last year, Fox News remains the dominant news network, airing 9 out of the 10 most-watched shows last month.

Including the second- and third-most popular networks, CNN and MSNBC, Nielsen data shows that just shy of 4 million Americans were tuned into cable news at any one moment during primetime hours.

Meanwhile, Musk’s posts on X consistently generate tens of millions of views. But does that mean that traditional media is dead?

Understanding TV Ratings

While there has been a measurable decline in the number of broadcast news viewers in recent years, comparing cable data to digital clicks and views is like comparing apples and oranges.

Viewing a social media post only takes a few seconds and platforms register every time someone scrolls past. In contrast, Nielsen calculates average viewer numbers for any given show based on data collected each minute.

In other words, cable ratings would be significantly higher if they were measured in the same way as social media views, capturing every single glance no matter how fleeting.

Yet, one thing is clear. Younger audiences have all but abandoned cable news in favor of digital media.

Changing News Consumption Patterns

When the Reuters Institute published its first  annual digital news report in 2013, TV was still the most popular source of news among survey respondents. But each year since 2014, digital channels have been the preeminent media of news consumption.

Compared to the small handful of cable news networks, the online news mediascape is much more crowded, with different websites, aggregators, and social media platforms vying for attention.

In the sense that they provide video-based reporting and commentary on current affairs, YouTube chat shows, indy podcasts and TikTok journalism all fill the same niche as cable news. Yet each is its own medium.

The rising fragmentation of news distribution in the post-TV era can also be observed in generational differences documented by the Reuters Institute.

Distinguishing between “digital native” 25–34 year-olds and “social native” under 25s, researchers found  that younger audiences are more likely to get their news from social media platforms or aggregators. In contrast, millennials have a preference for publisher-owned websites and mobile apps.

Social Media Influence

In an increasingly diverse and fragmented digital media ecosystem, the idea that the likes of Fox News might function as some kind of monolithic source of truth looks increasingly outdated.

Distrust of traditional news outlets defines the contemporary Trumpist zeitgeist, which has seen even Fox News fall out of favor with some American conservatives.

Proponents of the new, more polyvocal system argue that the decline of cable news increases the diversity of viewpoints and lets audiences choose for themselves which stories are important. 

But what are the consequences of people like Elon Musk being able to influence millions of followers with little or no moderation? 

From Tesla stock to Dogecoin, Musk’s ability to move markets with a single post is well documented. How seriously people take the rest of his X feed is less clear.

The billionaire influencer clearly believes the “legacy media” can’t be trusted. Can he?

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