The growing digital realm of social media has provided this era with many wonderful tools and resources for different creative industries to use to their advantage. Social media is great for bringing awareness to developing businesses and new artists. It is a quick and easy way to spread knowledge. Unfortunately, the ease and vast way knowledge can spread is also social media’s downfall when it comes to who the information is coming from. Anyone can make a post on social media and create discourse, but is that always for the best? Fake news is an example of how social media can be destructive as a democratic platform.
As Tandoc, Lim and Ling (2018) note, fake news is not necessarily a concept that was invented with the emergence of social media. They use Orson Welles’ narration of War of the Worlds as an example. In 1938, he thought it would make for fun story telling on live radio to narrate this story of a Martian invasion. Unfortunately, listeners were unfamiliar with this format and thought that it was a real news broadcast. Today, however, fake news is almost unavoidable. Social media creates a platform where anyone can upload anything without needing to back up their claims. An abundance of information on such a public platform can cause the public to question what is true and what is not. The most obvious example is the 2016 presidential election (McGonagle, 2017). McGonagle defines fake news as “information that has been deliberately fabricated and disseminated with the intention to deceive and mislead others into believing falsehoods or doubting verifiable facts” (p. 203). Social media has increased the harm of fake news due to the fact that it is so much easier to spread information. Many people do not think to fact check what they are sharing, and thus information that is false has more capacity to spread to a wider audience and cause greater harm.
Social media also unfortunately causes a lot of uncertainty about what sources of news we can trust online. Aldwairi and Alwahedi (2018) note that “fake news and Clickbaits interfere with the ability of a user to discern useful information from the Internet services especially when news becomes critical for decision making.” (p. 221). Those with no understanding of how to fact check fake news will have trouble identifying and flagging it when it shows up on their timeline. Tandoc et al. (2018) also note that social media and modern technology have contributed massively to the influx of citizen journalists. While citizen journalism can be great for many things, such as the real-time release of footage and photographs on breaking news, it also has its downfalls. Most notably, citizen journalists do not have the same ethical training. they While social media creates a great space for democracy to take place, especially in regard to discourse surrounding the news, it is also completely unmonitored. This can result in a variety of ethical problems. Fake news is a danger to ethical journalism.
Another way that social media encourages citizen journalism and therefore, often misinformation is through Suler (2016)’s theory on minimizing authority. Suler’s theory recognizes all individuals on social media as equals. People create online personas that they can hide behind. Some choose to stay completely anonymous. This creates a difficult environment for journalism because there is a huge lack of reliable sources to be found online. Suler refers to the idea that everyone is equal as “net democracy” (p. 106). Most people have a smart phone that they can use to post whatever they like on the internet and social media, but this brings us back to the issue of ethical boundaries. Traditional media will use censorship tactics to protect the public from graphic and potentially troubling imagery, such as dead bodies. Social media allows anyone to post anything initially. It may get taken down eventually for violating the terms and conditions of the platform, but people will still potentially see this content before it is removed.
Social media creates an environment for fake news to flourish and misinformation to spread, even unintentionally. While its accessibility has undoubtably caused a large amount of good for journalism and the spread of discourse, it is also impossible to ignore the negative affect it has had on the reliability of news. Donald Trump in particular has taken advantage of the uprise of fake news on social media as a way to flip the narrative on reliable news sources like the New York Times. In 2017, Meryl Streep spoke of the importance of protecting democratic journalism during her Golden Globes speech. Today, that speech is just as relevant. Social media can be a useful tool for the spread of news, as long as we as an audience continue to view it with a critical eye.
Aldwairi, M., & Alwahedi, A. (2018). Detecting fake news in social media networks. Procedia Computer Science, 141, 215–222.
McGonagle, T. (2017). “Fake News”: False fears or real concerns? Netherlands Quarterly of Human Rights, 35(4), 203–209.
Suler, J. R. (2015). Psychology of the Digital Age. https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781316424070
Tandoc, E., Lim, Z W., & Ling, R. (2018). Defining “fake news:” a typology of scholarly definitions. Digital Journalism: Trust, Credibility, Fake News, 6(2), 137–153.