You would have to have been living under a rock to have missed the way that news coverage has moved to feature in social media feeds, so ubiquitous now that it barely merits a second thought. This union has proved to be both beneficial and problematic, though the advantages, efficiency but one, are difficult to overlook. Rather than having to visit a separate website, tune in to the radio, switch on the TV or pay for a newspaper, all one has to do is log in to their social media account to access the same content, often in real-time. Leaving this to one side, this marriage can have important consequences when it is one’s only way of accessing the latest news, particularly in a society that is becoming increasingly dependent on technology. In a report published by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism it was revealed that 1 in 10 people favour their social media in briefing them on the latest news, a figure likely to be higher almost two years on from the study.
The media industry is under a lot of pressure to adapt to the rapid change that society is currently undergoing, some even referring to this transitional period as a ‘technological revolution’. Over the last decade, there has been a massive decline in the number of people consuming printed news, preferring other sources such as television and radio and, increasingly, online coverage. It is fairly recent, however, that the news has bled into social media platforms and on such a scale, this phenomenon corresponding to the rising popularity of companies such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat. It seems only natural that in such a climate news organisations would be willing to adapt in order to reach the largest audience, only made possible by embracing these new networking tools. According to the Pew Research Centre, 67% of Americans admit to accessing some of their news coverage on social media, says a report published in 2017. Now, Facebook has a built in feature that mimics a news bulletin. Snapchat hosts the stories of many of the major players in media, such as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, along with others such as The Sun and The Daily Mail. Much of today’s political debate takes place within what has become known as the ‘Twittersphere’. Social media has become impossible to ignore, it being entirely logical to see why many well-known news organizations have jumped on the social media bandwagon, it being too important a ride to miss.
Today’s problem, though, is that of the spread of ‘fake news’, to use the famous term coined by Donald Trump. When social media becomes one’s main or only source of accessing news, they make themselves more vulnerable to be exposed to sensationalist or misleading information which feeds off the freedom and scope of these platforms. At its heart, social media is intended to be a personal, social space hence when one introduces news coverage, it too must become social and personal for its target audience, there then being a fine line between what is real ‘news’ and what is actually an ideology dressed as ‘fact’. In this sense, it’s no surprise that social media platforms are the seed-bed of extremist content or birthplace of ‘fake news’. In 2017, a rumour that the devastating hurricane Irma would be a category 6 storm – a level that does not exist – was doing the rounds on social media after it was broadcast by the website InfoWars and shared on Facebook. The President of the United States Donald Trump even retweeted one of the right-wing Britain First’s campaign videos about Islamic terrorism, both deemed Islamophobic and later discredited. When news becomes ideological, which it inevitably does when it leaks into social media, “fake news”, misinformation and the distortion of fact becomes unavoidable, even inevitable. The presence of reputable news organizations on social media legitimizes the less trustworthy ones that whose sole aim is to reach as many people as possible, making it even more difficult to distinguish between ‘real’and ‘fake’ news. Though this task was far from easy even before this shift, all these developments can do is further muddy the waters of fact and fiction.
Crucially, this phenomenon has made it necessary to have some way of filtering the ‘real’ news from the ‘fake’ news. In The Guardian’s James Ball’s piece on the decline of public trust in social media makes it clear just how prescient this issue really is:
Trust in social media platforms fell just four points year-on-year in the UK, and even after the relentless coverage of social media being exploited for propaganda, and the big tech backlash in the US, fell just 11 points there. Globally, media was trusted less than business and NGOs, and is equal to government – and this trust level isn’t increasing.
Many government leaders and CEOs have pledged to tackle the spread of fake news, attesting that it is one of their main priorities. This can be problematic in itself though, people voicing their concerns that freedom of the press must be protected, that a state where fake news is rife is preferable to a state policed and censored by governing bodies. In spite of this, some of these strategies are compelling and might well positively contribute to the fight against misinformation and sensationalism. During the run-up to the Italian election, the government is assigning a task force to combat fake news in the wake of the suspected Russian meddling in the 2016 US election. Following much public uproar, Mark Zuckerberg has committed to suppressing the spread of fake news on Facebook by encouraging its users to take a survey on which sources of information they perceive to be most “trustworthy” so as to give priority to “high quality news”.
Social media platforms are a great way to respond to news stories and are often used as vehicles for social or political movements, undeniably a good thing in that they are a sign of a healthy democratic society. The #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo movements would not have taken off in the same way if social media platforms had not been their to give them access to millions of people. Complications arise when social media is a source of news rather than a space to react to news, though this recognition may have come too late. As James Ball points out,
they [social media and news coverage] are now wedded to one another, and will sink or swim together. News won’t be saved by the public falling out of love with Facebook. It will take much more than that.
Regrettably, it seems to be too late to curb these developments, it being instead more important to get with the programme and experiment with methods of damage-control and of improving the quality of journalism today. Though the future is far from certain, there remains huge potential for the media industry, avenues that are only available thanks to these very social platforms. It seems that all we can do at present is keep scrolling.