Few people consciously distinguish between the Fourth and Fifth Estates when searching for information, following a media platform, or engaging with online content.

However, most of us regularly interact with a mixture of both.

To better understand how the public engages with the Fifth Estate, PMI commissioned independent research firm Povaddo to conduct an international survey in December 2023.

The survey found that two-thirds of respondents believe most people get their news and information from individual and community-based online platforms, such as online communities, bloggers, social media, and podcasts. Conversely, only 29 percent believe most people get their news and information from traditional sources such as television, radio, and newspapers.

Most respondents use, watch, read, or engage regularly with one or more of the following sources: social media timelines or feeds (37 percent); product or service reviews on Amazon, YouTube, Tripadvisor, or another platform (28 percent); social media groups or communities (27 percent); specific individual commentators or contributors—e.g., a content creator publishing posts, podcasts, videos, or other content (22 percent); and comments sections accompanying news articles and social media posts (22 percent).

When asked why they engage with individual and community-based online sources, respondents highlighted that these sources are more accessible or easier to use than other sources of information (55 percent), provide an opportunity to engage in conversation with like-minded individuals (47 percent), and offer independent views (45 percent).

Survey respondents were also asked whether they had taken any action based on information or recommendations from individual or community-based online sources. The top responses were as follows: “I talked to friends or family about something I read” (90 percent); “I made an online purchase” (84 percent); “I browsed a company’s website” (84 percent); and “I made an in-store / in-person purchase” (79 percent). Notably, 69 percent reported that they had changed their views about a particular issue based on the information to which they were exposed.

The Fifth Estate landscape is as broad and diverse as the voices that comprise it. Below are a few examples of the actors that make up this sector.

Individual Commentators and Contributors

Individual commentators and contributors form a vital segment of the Fifth Estate, using various content forms and digital platforms to share their views, create conversations, or inform their audiences on a specific topic. These independent voices range from bloggers dissecting political intricacies and content creators exploring the latest cultural trends to vloggers giving their take on anything from technology and sports to the art of making the “perfect” cup of coffee.

The range and volume of content made available by individual contributors is hard to grasp and impossible to catalog. Indicatively, a report notes that as of June 2022, more than 500 hours of video were uploaded to YouTube every minute, equating to approximately 30,000 hours of newly uploaded content per hour.

In recent years, an increasing number of individuals with a point of view or information they’re eager to share have turned to podcasting for the creative freedom, audience engagement, flexibility, and potential global reach this medium confers. Unlike radio shows, podcasts don’t depend on broadcast networks and affiliates for production and distribution. Podcasters can simply record whatever they want and upload it to a hosting service or platform such as Spotify, Acast, or Podbean or host it on their own website.

Although podcasts supported by mainstream media brands loom large on media charts, they vie with shows from independent networks such as Podmasters, Goalhanger, and Radiotopia. And beyond the top 1,000 podcasts, there is a massively long tail of hundreds of thousands of active shows.

Audiences value podcasts for on-demand listening while multitasking, for the variety of content, and for the sense of personal connection with the podcasters. Encouragingly, many also value hearing other people’s opinions.


Influencers can be considered a subset of individual contributors, although they are arguably the most visible players of the Fifth Estate. These individuals are center stage on platforms such as Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok, where brief, punchy visual content attracts the most attention. They are typically focused on consumer culture, creating entertaining and engaging content fast and driving the medium’s evolution as they experiment. They can affect the purchasing decisions of multitudes because of their style, authority, knowledge, position, charisma, or relationship with their audiences.

Fashion influencers such as Komal Pandey, Chiara Ferragni, Camila Coelho, and many others blog and vlog to millions of followers. At the geekier end of the influencer spectrum, with longer content, YouTuber Rick Beato has evolved from music producer, enthusiast, and reviewer to full-blown influencer. Such is the authority he has accrued that he now interviews some of the biggest stars in music.

Independent Journalists and Information Platforms

Competing with the mainstream journalism of the Fourth Estate are the independent news blogs and websites of the Fifth Estate.

These platforms typically take an independent stance, often providing a different viewpoint from mainstream media. As they are not required to fit into broadcast schedules or toe the line of a corporate owner or charter, they can conduct in-depth and investigative journalism without the restrictions that constrain so many mainstream sources.

Prominent examples of this area of the Fifth Estate are ProPublica and The Real News Network, both U.S.-based nonprofit newsrooms that focus on investigative journalism in the public interest. Similar content creators are staking out their patch on the self-publishing platform Substack, which bills itself as “A New Home for Readers,” or on Ghost.

While the above examples are arguably Fourth Estate 2.0, others are very much 21st century. For instance, Bellingcat is an award-winning independent investigative collective of researchers, investigators, and citizen journalists specializing in open-source research and open-source intelligence or OSINT. Also using open-source information, the website Snopes has become a go-to reference for checking out suspected misinformation, and WikiLeaks continues to generate buzz—and no small amount of controversy and scandal—by publishing classified documents and other media provided by anonymous sources.

Citizen Journalists

Ordinary individuals have contributed to mainstream journalism from the start—offering firsthand accounts of events they witnessed, which were then channeled through traditional media to reach a broader audience. The advent of the internet cut out the middleman, allowing individuals to reach audiences directly. Many credit South Korea’s OhMyNews, founded in 2000, as the earliest platform for amateur-generated news and information. In the years since, virtually anyone with a smartphone has been able to capture events as they unfold and post them to social sites with their perspective and commentary. Collectively, these posts have had an enormous impact, including by holding authorities to account for bad behavior, as we saw with the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020—an event that likely would have gone unreported without video captured and shared on Facebook and Instagram by a bystander. Content creators can use their own platforms or submit articles and videos to sites such as Wikinews, Slashdot, and Global Voices.

Online Communities and Groups

Community-based platforms and groups form another dynamic and influential segment of the Fifth Estate, serving as hubs for information sharing, engagement, and mobilization among groups with shared interests, goals, or identities. Such online communities come in all shapes and forms, leveraging a range of social and community-based platforms. For example, platforms such as Reddit host forums discussing niche topics, Facebook groups bring together people with common affiliations or hobbies, and neighborhood platforms such as Nextdoor bring together neighbors to exchange community news. There are also many issue-based communities convening people to raise awareness, share information, and advocate for change. Examples include environmental groups mobilizing for climate action, social justice communities, and forums dedicated to mental health. Through platforms such as Change.org, these communities can mobilize to effect change.

The impact of online communities is often seen, felt, and heard in the real world—shaping culture, the news, and sometimes even the economy (think “Taylornomics”). Consider other examples, too: the traders on Reddit forum r/WallStreetBets who helped spike GameStop’s stock price in early 2021 (much to the displeasure of the short sellers who were betting on the stock falling) or the #FreeBritney movement that drew global media attention in 2020.

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