In today’s day and age, social media is becoming an imperative and rather unavoidable aspect of our lives. The internet, today, has greater outreach than ever before. It has emerged to be a continual source of news, information, and entertainment for people around the world for over the past decade; it has evolved to be defined by its interactivity and user-generated content.
With more than 2.4 billion internet users, social media has become the main source of news online. According to a Forbes article, 64.5% of internet users receive their news from Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Snapchat and Instagram rather than traditional news sources.
It has also been found that there has been a 57% increase in traffic to news sites referred from social media. Domains such as Twitter have become a valuable way to retrieve fast and real-time news, which is raw and unaffected by traditional media bias. The fact that social networking sites are faster in terms of the spread of news and make news more accessible, has led to this lateral shift from a traditional linear news cycle towards a more complex information cycle.
An essential characteristic of news presented on the platform of social media is that these social networking sites have control over what news and information we are able to view. This can be attributed to the fact that news can be distributed and picked up by the audience in an incidental way. This implies that articles appear in the content flow without any deliberate actions being taken by the user. Articles that appear on the social media feeds of users are suggested automatically by the networks through algorithms based on previous use, based on previous “likes” and “follows” of the user and activity of the people that the user follows.
While social media has risen to be a great tool for journalists to market themselves, their stories and connect with readers, there is still much conjecture about the degree of reliability and accountability these social platforms have to offer.
News organisations such as The Guardian, the Hindu, the Times of India, and more have a base on social media. These news organisations ensure that they provide accurate and unbiased information to their readers and viewers. However, social media allows people a platform to express their own opinion and share certain forms of media. This can lead to chaos- people can share false news and biased videos. And with the invention of retweets and likes, this news can reach millions of people and provide inaccurate information to them.
Further on, “breaking” news happens almost instantaneously on social media. Social media as a news source is characterised by immediacy and more frequency. However, this concept of urgency is inadvertently leading to the spreading of factually incorrect news. In order to break the internet, or break the news, the information rendered is often unverified. “Journalism is becoming less about transferring knowledge and more about crafting the most persuasive interruption.” As a result of this, we end up with far more words being written, far more time spent reading, and far less clarity, context and understanding.
Is social media reliable?
The reason the question of ‘is social media reliable’ arises today is because of the mass access to social media. Ten years ago, social media was a completely new platform that was barely trusted or used by anybody. But now with everyone, from children to corporate brands being on social media, nothing can be taken at word value. One can never be sure if the news they are receiving through a tweet is true or not, but they can always look at the social media pages of actual news organisations for news written with journalistic integrity.
One major problem stems from the dubious reliability of information engendered by the networks themselves. Each social networking website targets a particular audience and hence the opinions and articles they present are heavily biased by the interests of that specific section of readers. For example, in 2012, according to a survey conducted by a startup called Buzz Referral, 80% of the users on Pinterest were women. Hence surveys conducted on such platforms may lack balance.
Even when data is freely accessible it has already been filtered by those managing the network to suit the interests of the target audience. Another factor contributing to this dilemma is when the huge number of bots and spammers which come off as ordinary users of the internet become sources of serious errors. For instance, while studies focusing on politically active users on Twitter claim that political affiliation can be predicted from tweets with 90% accuracy, when all Twitter users are included this success rate falls to 65%.
While this form of mass media has evidently become an indispensable form of propagation of news, its mishandling has emerged to be a source of disinformation. For example, social media has been extensively used to spread fake news and propaganda, especially in the political domain. A report from the university of oxford showed that Facebook, among other social networking sites, is one of the most common platforms that governments and political parties use to spread disinformation in order to discredit political opponents and drown out opposing views.
An example of fake news on social media can be seen through the global pandemic caused due to the outbreak of COVID-19. Misinformation, such as “turmeric and garlic can cure COVID-19 symptoms” started spreading as soon as news of rising infections skyrocketed. Another common myth that might create delusion among people is that the virus cannot propagate in tropical climates. While it is true, that COVID-19 has spread the most prominently in temperate and cold climates, the fact that countries with warmer temperatures are also being affected cannot be ignored. Misinformation such as this can be extremely deadly, especially in times of emergency.
It thus becomes the responsibility of news outlets to debunk fake news.
Another example of this is Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) social media campaign to drum up support for the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) which raised eyebrows as Twitter users pointed out random tweets promoting the toll-free number with promises of free data, sex and Netflix. This number was actually launched by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), on which people can register their support in favour of pro-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) campaign by giving a missed call. Social media, thus, may mislead people.
However, the volatility of news spread on social media is also an essential characteristic in today’s political environment because social media serves to be an important protest tool. This feature is rather unique to this form of mass media. It has played a large role in political uprisings since it teaches users a new way to create groups, spread information all over the globe and voice their opinion unanimously. Social media helps its users view every aspect of a situation and put forth their political views. The strength of every political protest that has taken place in the past few years gravitates back to the attention it receives on platforms of the internet. It makes people, especially students, more aware of the situation around them. An example of this are the protests at Jamia Milia Islamia relating to the CAA, that received the amount of attention they did because of the extensive social network of social media. Social media, hence, presents multiple facets of a sensitive situation.
Spiral of silence
Social media relates to a spiral of silence. News presented on a platform such as social media does not initiate conversation. Social media does not provide new forums for those who might otherwise remain silent to express their opinions and debate issues. Further, if people think their friends and followers on social media disagree with them, they are less likely to state their views online. This implies that the broad awareness social media users have of their networks might make them more hesitant to speak up because they are especially tuned into the opinions of those around them.
In a world with an increasing need to fact check news sources, the advent of social media as a news source has its pros and cons. The need of the hour is to ensure that only credible information is spread online.
Reliable news sources
In times such as these, where a global pandemic is threatening life at large, it becomes vital for people to be adequately informed and not blindly believe what they see on social media. Following are links to a few reliable news sources, in general and with respect to updates on the virus:
Written by Tanya Jain and Radhika Taneja for MTTN
Featured image by Ashitha for MTTN