The more people are drawn to social media for news, the fewer people are consuming professional journalism from news outlets. Some are hailing this as “democratized news” and believe news content will be less biased and more truthful in people’s hands.
While media bias is a legitimate problem, social media is certainly not a cure. In fact, when it comes to accurate news reporting, social media has done extraordinary harm.
But social media has some advantages: it’s accessible, easy to use, and free. It’s helpful for staying in touch with friends, networking, keeping up with celebrity gossip — and, yes, keeping up with breaking news. But because social media is hostile to reason, civility and depth, it shouldn’t crowd out news outlets.
Social media: a petri dish for fake news
According to the Pew Research Center, social media is also anti-knowledge. People who rely on social media for news “are typically less knowledgeable about a wide range of current events and broader political knowledge questions about the US.” We are seeing more and more of the real consequences of this.
Do you remember Philadelphia in 2020? False allegations of voter fraud circulating on social media prompted two gunmen from Virginia to drive to the PA Convention Center where votes were being counted. At the same time, then-City Commissioner Al Schmidt—a Republican responsible for counting Philadelphia’s votes—and his family faced serious threats. For braving the storm of these threats, President Joe Biden recently awarded Schmidt the Presidential Citizens Medal.
Everyone has different opinions. It seems obvious, but as you spend your days on social media, what you see there shapes your understanding of the world.
But Schmidt should not have faced these threats in the first place. Without social media, the electoral lies would not have spread so widely and so quickly.
To reduce the likelihood of this happening again, we need to collectively assess the issues associated with relying on social media for information.
Problem #1: False impressions on social media
Social media algorithms personalize users’ feeds and show users only what they want to see. This means that any rando can take a view without attempting fact-checking. And if you agree with said rando — or even spend time watching his posts — you’re more likely to see their posts.
The consequence of social media users only seeing messages they are comfortable with is creating a perception that their mindset is everyone else’s. That’s wrong. Everyone has different opinions. It seems obvious, but as you spend your days on social media, what you see there shapes your understanding of the world.
And social media, which reinforces the false belief that your views are the only valid ones, corrodes public discourse.
Problem #2: There is no democracy in social media based news
Aside from only seeing messages that you agree to, what “messages” is is arbitrary in the world of social media. In traditional news environments, desks of reporters and editors—whose reputations depend largely on accuracy—use their expertise and experience to judge what’s credible. The idea behind a “democratized” platform is that the input of all participants is weighted equally. That’s nice in theory – but doesn’t work in reality.
People generally want to get their news from news outlets that build their reputation on reporting facts.
Then there’s Meta, the company that owns Facebook. Facebook recently launched a program to encourage honest journalism in a dedicated newsfeed. The idea is that if the news appears in the news feed, it is credible news. The only way to get into the newsfeed is if an outlet is credited as a legitimate source. Without this label, the outlet’s articles will not appear in the Facebook news feed.
One way to mitigate the anger generated by low-quality social media messages is to teach media literacy and encourage students’ BS-O-Meters.
The problem is that one social media company — in this case Facebook — has positioned itself to dictate which channels and which messages are credible. This is important because Facebook is the most used social media platform for news and now they are in the business of anointing media.
To be clear, this is not about the democratization of news. This is not news from the people. This is a social media giant asserting its rule.
Well, to be sure, I’m not saying the state of the media is great – I’ve criticized the media before. But if recent history is any indication, the grass will not be greener on the side of so-called news democratization.
Problem #3: Short posts hurt public discourse
After Facebook, Twitter is the most used social media platform for news. In addition to Twitter’s uncouth culture of rudeness, the short-post format values attention-grabbing headlines about thoughtful discourse. Instead of fleshing out their ideas, Twitter users have no choice but to come up with statements of 280 characters or less. Add that to the fact that everyone follows the trend, and you have a contest as to who can be the trendiest jerk in the fewest words—minimalist ass, so to speak.
While conservatives are praising Twitter’s new CEO, Elon Musk, for his democratization of news through Twitter, the 280-character requirement is also biting conservatives. Take conservative pundit Larry Elder, for example.
He Tweeted, “If Adolph Hitler, Mao Tse Tung, and Elon Musk were walking down the street and you gave an American left-handed man a gun with two bullets — he’d put both in Elon Musk.” His point was that liberals’ hatred of Musk was theirs Hatred of dictators prevails. Unfortunately for Elder, his succinct sarcasm didn’t go down very well with Elon Musk’s mom.
What a hateful and threatening tweet. I hope you don’t have any children or family because they would bow their heads in embarrassment. https://t.co/INSjQSTKzx
— Maye Musk (@mayemusk) December 18, 2022
Musk later clarified to his mother that Elder’s tweet was “okay.” But it is a good example – and one among many thousands – of how statements made with few words and no room for context can be misunderstood.
Twitter’s lack of space for more elaboration is why I only express my views in formats where I can offer my full breadth of argument—like in these columns or on radio shows. The issues we face are too complicated and nuanced to capture in short tweets.
Problem #4: Short posts encourage lazy reading
One benefit of digesting information from forums where people go into more detail is that good reading habits can be encouraged. Reading is needed at a time when 54 percent of Americans (130 million people) lack literary skills.
Now nobody should have to wade through long articles to keep up with current events. But one should seek credible sources that provide context of what professional journalism is doing. Relying on social media for information can leave you lazy reading and content with missing details.
The problem is so glaring and pervasive that there’s now a widely used acronym for long-form reading: “TLDR,” which stands for “too long, no read.” How lazy.
As Americans spend 1,300 hours on social media and consume a lot of information through short posts, they’re becoming used to receiving information in this format—short, quick, and insubstantial. It allows people to have at least an idea of the issues that dominate public discourse. But it lacks depth and encourages misunderstandings like political slogans: “Build back better”. “Make America great again.” Phrases that can mean anything or anything, allowing people to form an opinion with little information.
Searching for truth in the media
One way to mitigate the anger generated by low-quality social media messages is to teach media literacy and encourage students’ BS-O-Meters. According to Media Literacy Now, 14 states have policies mandating some form of media literacy education. Pennsylvania is not one of those states. And as of this month, we stand behind New Jersey, which passed legislation mandating K-12 media literacy education. This is a policy void for the Pennsylvania General Assembly to fill.
Being a good citizen consists of thinking critically about everything you read and considering its impact on you, your family, your community, your country and the world. We should empower the students to initiate this kind of reflection and also hold ourselves accountable for this reflection.
Jemille Q. Duncan is a public policy expert, columnist, and Gates Fellow at Swarthmore
University. He is the former aide to two members of the Philadelphia City Council and a Pennsylvania State Senator. @jq_duncan
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Photo by Ian Maina for Unsplash.