Social media’s role in news

This is an essay I wrote for my journalism and media summer school subject – please feel free to feedback.

Social media’s role in news.

They have changed the way individuals, but also more recently organisations, not only communicate but also use their leisure and work time. Social media, sometimes also known as social networking sites, is defined as ‘websites and applications that enable users to create and share content or to participate in social networking. ‘(Oxford Dictionaries 2017). The turn of the millennia saw the start of these with early incarnations like Myspace, then later YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and more.

In order to describe the term ‘news’, it is not enough to say that it is something new or is a piece of information recently acquired. It encompasses facts and information about our world whether they be global events, our national economic situation, celebrity goings-on, political machinations or reporting on a recent climatic disaster. Essentially events and the stories that come from these events, however micro or macro, news surrounds us.  In the past, people went out of their way to obtain news and today it preaches at us from a screen whilst we pump petrol.

Social media organisations may not have begun as news outlets, there is a strong argument that they morphed into such. Journalists, citizen reporters, news organisations, political parties, community advocacy groups and many more all use various social media to disseminate information, report on events and share stories in real time. Twitter is essentially a micro blogging tool whose prompt, ‘What’s happening?’, incites its users to report on what they are doing. Facebook users upload a brief excerpt including images which then link to an outside agency. The procedure by which social media platforms present the news may vary, but the fact that they do connect users to news stories makes them, by default, a news outlet.

According to a Reuters Institute report (2015), of respondents across 12 countries, 40 percent access Facebook for their predominant news source – YouTube received 18 percent, Twitter 11 percent and Google+ 7 percent. All platforms saw an increased engagement from the previous year, bar Google+ which remained level. Different platforms attracted a different range of users. Similarly in Australia, 76% of young people get their news from social media (NLA 2015).

It goes without saying that the features of different platforms attract a variety of core users. Twitter, with its 140 character limit appeals to those who appreciate a fast pace and brevity, such as journalists and the news-hungry public. SnapChat attracts mostly under 25 year-olds and WhatsApp attracts the highest number of users from Brazil, Spain and Italy.(Reuters Institute 2015)

All platforms experience interactivity to varying degrees. Whilst this can help foster a sense of community, it can lead to the presence of trolls. Trolling, or commenting with the intent to disrupt or argue, can be rife as platforms afford a certain anonymity and therefore more importantly a lack of accountability.

When assessing social media’s role in news, one of the most important factors to consider is its use of algorithms. An algorithm may be computer driven but it is still human generated and therefore editorship is a valid question. Social media organisations have tried from the beginning to pitch themselves as technology companies. Facebook, Google, and other Web companies have sought to walk a fine line: They don’t want to get into the practice of hiring human editors, which they believe would make them vulnerable to criticisms of partisan bias and stray from their core business of building software.” (Dwoskin et al 2016)

One of the key missteps of this approach is that an algorithm at its inception is created by a human, so the question of bias will always be a fair one. Algorithms control features such as Facebook’s ‘trending topics’ section as well as how the ‘news feed’ is ordered. All the platforms have their own unique methods for organising their content. Instagram originally employed a strictly chronological order prior to changing their feed style in 2016. As espoused on their blog “To improve your experience, your feed will soon be ordered to show the moments we believe you will care about the most. The order of photos and videos in your feed will be based on the likelihood you’ll be interested in the content, your relationship with the person posting and the timeliness of the post.” (Instagram blog 2016). Instagram’s current algorithm is predicated upon this human-designed program. 

The effects of this computer performed, though human designed, algorithm is multiple and varied.  One of the most obvious effects is that of the ‘echo chamber’ or ‘filter bubble’. By subscribing to accounts we like, which includes legitimate news organisations, individuals and the numerous other type of accounts, we inadvertently create a network of information that reinforces our own viewpoint. A conscious effort needs to be made to include information that doesn’t align with our own biases.
The reality is humans do like to consume information that aligns with their existing beliefs. So, when we read something that goes along with what we already think or that we think might be true, we are inclined to believe it. We might also be inclined to share it.” (PBS Newshour 2016)

Of course, it is not just social media sites grappling with how news is delivered. The traditional news organisations are borrowing social media’s features such as Facebook’s ‘Trending Topics’.  Labelled ‘Popular Now’ on the ABC news website and ‘Most Popular’ on the BBC news website, legacy media are adapting social media hallmarks. Algorithms are utilised by both social media and legacy news organisations alike.

An alarming trend propagated by algorithms has been the proliferation of fake news stories. Whether termed fake news, alternate facts or post-truth, these articles flourish in the fast-paced, superficial and passive environment that is social media. “Fake news is a term that came to prominence in 2016, to refer to websites that deliberately published disinformation — often then promoted on social media for political purposes.” (ABC 2017). It also is enjoying the status as 2016 Macquarie Dictionary’s word of the year.

Satire has always existed and also to a point has fake news. Huffington Post featured an apt example (2016) which was written as satire but inadvertently spread as news. Written after Trump was elected US president, the headline mentioned a little known loophole which could see Sanders assume the presidency. Though blatantly false, satire is one of the least common ways that fake news spreads.
More deliberate methods include deflecting attention to a peripheral subject, reframing information, obscuring or changing the context and diverting attention (such as verbally attacking celebrities to avoid focus like Donald Trump’s tweet commenting on Meryl Streep’s acting ability).

As an audience we are partly responsible for the epidemic of fake news in our news consumption. Our addiction to novelty encourages headlines and stories that grab our attention. We have habituated to traditional methods of story-telling and subsequently organizations must go further to secure our attention to click outside the platform and into their own websites. Income is generated by the number of clicks stories receive and consequently click-bait headlines have become the norm.
Content that is shared passively by a few screen touches without any attempt at verification is a major reason fake news stories continue to spread online. An active approach is required to reign in the power and spread of fake news. News consumers need to question the motives and provenance of news reports. Large news organizations with established trust such as Reuters, BBC, The New York Times and The Washington Post as well as fact check websites like snopes.com are easily accessible avenues for the concerned news consumer.
In an increasingly globalized world, different countries employ their own journalistic code of ethics. In Australia, the MEAA Journalist Code of Ethics espouses honesty, fairness, independence and respect for rights of others. Whether by omission of facts or deliberate untruths, accuracy in reporting is a foundation of journalism. It is the scale of social media’s reach that magnifies this responsibility. “Of all the content on Facebook, more than 99% of what people see is authentic. Only a very small amount is fake news and hoaxes.” (Mark Zuckerberg 2016) Even if only one percent, one percent of 1.7 billion users constitutes a large amount of people.

Consequences of the issue of accuracy is even more vital when you consider possible violent repercussions of fake news. PBS Newshour (2016) detail an incident in America tagged Pizzagate. A 28 year-old North Carolina man drove six hours to a Washington DC pizza restaurant to self-investigate a supposed paedophile ring run by the Democratic Party. This was following a fake news story that surfaced and escalated online resulting in three shots fired into the busy family restaurant. (Pizzagate conspiracy theory 2017)

In response to circulating fake news stories, traditional news outlet The New York Times launched a fact check site to help US citizens in the lead up to the US 2016 election. While no convincing evidence exists that the US election was influenced by fake news stories circulating on various social media, the fact that a meme such as described by Kircher (2016) is a worrying event. The meme falsely details a process of voting from home for Clinton supporters.

Fairness in journalism touches on the issues of gathering information from a variety of sources and viewpoints as well as avoiding bias from either a reporter or an organisation. One of the most pertinent developments in social media’s news involvement is the growth of the citizen reporter. With low entry cost, mobility on the ground and a wide reach, the average world citizen can report on any event without being bound by journalistic responsibility. ‘Social media tools — especially Twitter — allowed journalists and the public alike to report occurrences quicker than in the past, although possibly with some errors.’ . (Harper 2010)

Independence from both commercial and political influence is another challenge social media organizations face in this era of news and fake news. With fake news generating more engagement than real news (Silverman 2016) and a lack of transparency, this need for independence could not be greater. Finally, respecting the rights of others whether they are celebrities, minors or grieving people is another stumbling block social media platforms have to face.

Going forward into the future, reputable legacy news organizations have to compete more and more with social media for the public’s attention. Social media companies have already started implementing tools aimed at curbing fake news articles in order to improve their reliability as sources of news. Self-regulation is a useful concept and can involve tools such as flagging stories, a reporting framework for users and internal mechanisms of image recognition/keywords. Wikipedia is the embodiment of this self-regulating social media as the general public has access to edit and update entries.
Additionally, as more journalists lose their jobs at established organizations as the business is financially streamlined, there will most likely be an increase of Independent journalists.  They will be able to side-step the established news organizations, verifying information and curating stories as part of their practice.
Journalists increasingly use social media to gain information but, as responsible professionals, scrutinize it as with any other source. “Journalists are beginning to embrace social media tools like Twitter, Blogs, and Facebook, but very much on their own terms. ‘Same values, new tools’ sums up the approach in most mainstream organisations as they marry the culture of the web with their own organisational norms. Guidelines are being rewritten; social media editors and twitter correspondents are being appointed; training and awareness programmes are underway.” (Newman 2009)

Finally, social media platforms, however they wish to portray themselves, are institutions which the general public view as a genuine news source. It is incumbent on them to use this position responsibly. “What if social networking sites induce a shift in our sense of what news is – from public politics to social flow – a change as fundamental perhaps as the birth of ‘news’ itself” (Couldroy 2012) It is only through a combination of robust public discourse, trust-worthy, accountable sources and a commitment to ethical journalistic practice that can elevate news within and outside social media into the future. 

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