“A little birdy told me”: The pitfalls of journalism in a social media world

(By Annie Dilworth, Queen’s University)


 

Social Media is social; it’s inherent in the name. Platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and Instagram, let people connect and share their opinions or an image of themselves with the world. Advertisers, companies, politicians and news sources are all flocking toward social media to capitalize on the potential of this relatively new media source. Over the past few months, Canadians could barely go one day without seeing something regarding the 42nd Federal election on their newsfeed or Twitter feed. Celebrities post carefully posed “selfies” and constant updates of their lives. We feel like we know the inner workings of Kim Kardashian’s life, that Jennifer Lawrence could be our best friend. There is no question that social media is an integral cog in the Western world, but what exactly does that cog do, and how far does it spread information and news?

As news sources such as the Globe and Mail increasingly rely on these fast forms of communication, how is the content affected? What role does the world of social media play in the innate bias of media that “can actively shape the public’s perception of reality” (McCarthy 43)? While it is currently impossible to truly understand the impact of social media on the distribution of information, the biases that actively shape perceptions are becoming more evident with the barrage of information found on every platform. As students, we are entering into a newly emerging media society, and it is important for us to understand how this world and its vast realm of information is shaped by the pre-existing biases in media, journalism and politics.

As one New York Times writer puts it, “this social filter is simply a technological version of the oldest tool in politics: word of mouth” (Stelter). People are no longer spreading opinions to neighbours or friends, but to dozens, if not hundreds of online friends or followers. It is without question that our generation has grown increasingly involved with social media. Yet the ability for an article to garner thousands of “retweets” or “favourites” shows that this “word of mouth” is more than simply an expanded distribution of information, but a source of news in itself. Canada’s most recent federal election on October 19th is a clear example of this social filter. With “more than 770,000 election-related “tweets” on Election Day, including some 470,000-odd that used the hashtag #elxn42” (King), reactions to the election and Canada’s political scene unfolded over the Internet as Canadians shared their experiences and political opinions. In an election that relied heavily on social media, concerns over misinformation or bias wouldn’t be unfounded. The overwhelming amount of reposts, “retweets”, “shares”, “favourites”, “likes”, etc. have the ability to propagate one story or view, whether true or false, biased or neutral. People often form a dangerously one-sided perspective.

Of the active Twitter and Facebook users, only seven percent of Facebook users and an even smaller four percent of Twitter users are actively political on these platforms because they are but a small subset of people who are “already very interested in politics” (Ira Basen). While Twitter has become an important tool for journalists, they “risk inflating its importance and distorting what is actually happening online” (Basen). The inflation of one opinion of a small minority does not make it fact, only spreading a biased and subjective opinion. Relying too heavily on one vocal perspective can lead to the silencing of contradictory views that are perceived as the minority, known as the Spiral of Silence Theory. If journalists rely too heavily on online platforms, they may legitimize perspectives that are not necessarily true or universal. As a consumer of information, one can never be sure what opinions are influencing the news and media, and online social platforms makes distinguishing that an even more difficult task.

Consumers play a large role in a journalist’s process. According to one Fortune survey, nearly 90% of respondents reported “they use Twitter for news” (Ingram). News sources, like the Globe and Mail—with 1.03 million followers—“tweet” links and headlines, bringing news literally to the people’s fingertips on their smart phones or computers. Thus, it is obvious why “the social, has become the new search” (Ingram). Social media makes it significantly easier to access information than in the past. Twitter offers a convenient way to find information, as stories are limited to 140 characters per “tweet”, aiming to spread information as fast as possible. As journalists try to keep up with the speed of the Internet, information can easily fall through the cracks. Twitter allows for instantaneous circulation of news that travels too fast to be properly verified, causing constant rumours and falsities (Jake Coyle). Rumours, ranging from celebrity breakups to deaths, force prominent public figures to officially refute the so-called “news”. The common occurrence of such rumours indicates that not only can false news be spread easily, but it also has a level of relevance and importance that allows it to become the entire society’s current topic of conversation. Journalists are now forced to compete with bloggers who are less accountable and viral stories that have 15 minutes, if not seconds of fame. They must keep up with each platform, or else rumours or misinformation could slip through the cracks.

Journalism is prone to bias even without the filter of social media. The selection of information to share, the frequency at which a particular event is reported, and the language or tone in which a story is reported all influence the shaping of public opinion (McCarthy 46-7). News is never truly neutrally reported; it is subject to the opinions of a reporter, or the public, even before the filters of Facebook or a 140-character Twitter summary. As news events spread through social media, more and more filters are created. One’s judgement of who is sharing the information colours how it will be received. The comments, number of “likes” and “retweets” contribute to public perception. The more places a story is found, the more people talk about it, giving it a credibility entirely separate from the news story itself. With each additional filter comes a new bias that exceeds the traditional concerns of print journalism.

Luckily, university teaches us to be critical thinkers. Unfortunately, it is so easy to shut down when scrolling through Facebook or Google. While most people know that not everything on the Internet is true, the sheer volume of information at our fingertips makes it increasingly harder to decide what is true and what is subject to the filtering of social media. Journalism and news have been and continue to change throughout the digital age. As we gain greater access to and ever-increasing amount of information, we must assume the role of the critic, questioner and analyzer. It is our responsibility to critique the sources and recognize the biases that we find at our fingertips. The Internet offers endless potential, but it is up to us, consumers, to question and evaluate the virtual world of social media.

 

 

Citations

Basen, Ira. “Analysis: Social media’s significance oversold amid election hype.” CBC.com.

CBC, 18 Oct. 2015. Web. 28 Oct. 2015

 

Coyle, Jake. “Is Twitter the news outlet for the 21st century?”. abcnews.go.com. abc News. N.d.

Web. 27 Oct. 2015.

 

Ingram, Matthew. “Twitter needs the news and the news needs Twitter.” Fortune.com. Fortune.

2 Sept. 2015. Web. 27 Oct. 2015.

 

King, Rob Levinson. “Justin Trudeau got help from youth, new voters, social media in election

win.” Thestar.com. The Star. 23 Oct. 2015. Web. 28 Oct. 2015

 

McCarthy, Killian J.,Wilfred Dolfsma. “Neutral Media? Evidence of Media Bias and its

Economic Impact.” Review of Social Economy. 72.1 (2014): 42-54. Web. 26 Oct. 2015.

 

Stetler, Brian. “Finding Political News Online, the Young Pass It On.” Nytimes.com. The New

York Times, 27 March 2008. Web. 27 Oct. 2015.

 

 

 

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