Just over two weeks ago on Sunday, October 1st, I had a day just like any other that I’ve lived since moving into my new place of residence in Burnaby. I got up, went to work, came back, went to meetings and fell asleep at around 12am, hoping to catch up on some much-needed sleep. What was unusual about this day in particular is that I had minimal interaction on my cellphone: I had just recently gotten a new Samsung smartphone, and of course had not had the foresight to buy a case for it in advance. Fearing everyone’s nightmare of dropping my brand-new, naked phone and cracking its screen, I chose to go without it for most of my afternoon.
This was a pretty strange phenomenon for me to experience, not having a phone by my side. I felt ever so slightly nervous for some reason, fearing that someone would be looking to contact me and that I was letting them down for not being connected. Not only that, but I had no real sense of what was going on outside of my personal bubble: my place of work has a radio which we keep on for music, but the TV we show is almost always sports-related, and therefore not the best for world events.
By the time I got home, I was able to get re-connected with my phone and felt exponentially more at-ease than before. I texted friends who tried to get a hold of me, scrolled mindlessly through my facebook and twitter feeds, and generally just killed time. Why, I wondered, do we consider it so damn important to be on social media all the time?
I got my answer the next morning.
When I woke up on Monday morning, I underwent my usual routine: I hit snooze 3 times before getting out of bed, showered, and ate my breakfast. On this morning in particular, though, I did something a bit out of the ordinary: I opened up facebook on my laptop (still fearing I’d drop my phone and crack it should I bring it out) and scrolled through my news feed. About 3 posts in, I saw a headline which made zero sense to me:
Trump on Las Vegas massacre: ‘An act of pure evil’
I clicked the article, which featured American President Donald Trump’s address on the then-still-breaking news of the Las Vegas shooting (Liptak, 2017). I immediately googled “Las Vegas shooting” and opened up the front page of reddit to try and figure out what exactly happened. Thanks to the latter, I was up-to-date with what transpired in a matter of minutes.
That morning was the first instance of myself getting important, historic world news entirely via social media, and it likely won’t be the last.
In the news landscape which exists today, it is becoming ever-more likely that even if you have cable and watch TV regularly, the next big breaking news story you’ll hear of will be broken to you over social media. This isn’t by virtue of choice for most: in fact, research from the American Press Institute states that not only do most Americans still get their news from Television, but it’s two times more popular than cellphones and laptops respectively as a ‘preferred’ medium of news consumption (American Press Institute, 2014). Yet, for the younger, millennial news-consumers which dominate social media, social media as a primary source of news is gaining popularity, and fast.
Yet, despite the good that social media channels like Facebook provide when it comes to informing the public about tragedies and major news developments, there are also major downsides to getting news from social media. The topic of “fake news” has been well-documented since the 2016 US presidential election, yet despite all of the rhetoric surrounding the issue, events like the Las Vegas shooting are still breeding grounds for untrue stories and harmful falsities to take hold of the public conversation in crisis situations (Levin, 2017).
How, then, does one avoid ‘fake news’, and assure that what they consume is objective truth? The answer, in many cases, is to avoid platforms as a primary and sole source of news. The inherent issue with social media platforms as news sources is, as Scott Bixby of The Guardian points out, that these sites and apps constantly flood viewers’ feeds not with important, bipartisan news, but stories which align with their own political and personal beliefs. This, in turn, creates an echo chamber of sorts, and assures that those viewing content on sites like Facebook after a tragedy or news event will not be presented with only objective facts (Bixby, 2016).
What is the point of viewing news on social media sites then? It may seem obvious, but as consumers of media we tend to look the other way when we see biased news coverage which is favorable to our own beliefs. We may feel uncomfortable if we log on to BBC or CBC’s websites and are faced with the cold, hard gravity and reality of a situation. We feel better, however, if we instead hear spins on what has happened that fit the framework of our ideology.
Not only that, but even when ‘proper’ news sources publish topical stories on facebook, one has to constantly keep in mind that even large news corporations like FOX, CNN and MSNBC will push their own agendas to the forefront whenever they appropriately can.
This is why, in my opinion, social media sites like facebook will never be able to serve as a truly trustworthy news source as long as their algorithms for important news remain similar to those that they use in everyday consumption for users.
Instead, consumers of news must be able to know who they can look to for unbiased news, and face some very uncomfortable, objective truths if needed. This isn’t to say that scrolling through facebook after tragedies is to be avoided; that’s almost impossible. What is possible, though, is to consume news critically, and know that where you’re consuming from is just as important as the content itself.
Having said all of this, it’s also important for content creators to know that everything that they put out has the potential to inform or misinform someone. In my specific case, I have to be aware that, even as a cooking website, any views I express, regardless of factual or political correctness, can be used to polarize a reader further to one side of an issue, should they choose. After all, if it’s in line with their beliefs, why wouldn’t they?
In conclusion, it’s definitely not my belief that social media can be trusted as a legitimate news source, at least not yet. Like any medium, it has to go through its kinks before coming into its own, it just so happens that it faces an exponential number more of those kinks than other traditional mediums based on its setup. I’m not giving up on social media as a news source– heck, without it I’d be that guy in my Monday morning class saying “wait, what happened last night?“. What I will say, though, is that when it comes to getting the facts of a story, I’ll stick to TV and a very short list of websites.
Liptak, K. (2017 October 2). Trump on Las Vegas massacre: ‘An act of pure evil’. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2017/10/02/politics/donald-trump-las-vegas-shooting-remarks/index.html.
American Press Institute (2014 March 17). How Americans get their news. Retrieved from https://www.americanpressinstitute.org/publications/reports/survey-research/how-americans-get-news.
Levin, S. (2017, October 2). Facebook and Google promote politicized fake news about Las Vegas shooter. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/oct/02/las-vegas-shooting-facebook-google-fake-news-shooter.
Bixby, S. (2016, October 1). ‘The end of Trump’: how Facebook deepens millennials’ confirmation bias. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/oct/01/millennials-facebook-politics-bias-social-media.