As more people gravitate toward social media for news, fewer people consume professional journalism from news outlets. Some praise this as news being “democratized,” believing that, in the hands of the people, news content will be less biased and more truthful.
While media bias is a legitimate problem, social media is certainly not the remedy. In fact, when it comes to accurate news reporting, social media has caused exceptional harm.
But social media has some pros: It’s accessible, user-friendly, and free. It’s helpful for staying connected with friends, networking, keeping up with celebrity gossip — and, yes, staying up-to-date on breaking news. But, because social media is hostile to reasoning, civility, and depth, it should not supplant news outlets.
Social media: a Petri dish for fake news
According to the Pew Research Center, social media is also hostile to knowledge. Folks reliant on social media for news “tend to be less knowledgeable on a wide range of current events and broad political-knowledge questions about the U.S.” More and more, we see the real-life consequences of this.
Remember Philadelphia in 2020? Bogus election fraud claims spreading on social media led to two armed men from Virginia driving 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 those threats, President Joe Biden recently awarded Schmidt the Presidential Citizens Medal.
Everyone has different opinions. This seems obvious, but when you spend your days on social media, what you see there shapes your understanding of the world.
But Schmidt shouldn’t have faced those threats in the first place. If not for social media, the lies about the election wouldn’t have spread so far and fast.
To lessen the chances of this happening again, we need to collectively assess the problems with relying on social media for information.
Problem #1: Social media’s false impressions
Social media algorithms personalize users’ feeds, showing users only what they want to see. This means any rando can espouse a view without an attempt at fact-checking. And if you agree with — or even spend time eyeballing posts by — said rando, you’re more likely to see their posts.
The consequence of social media users only seeing news they agree with is that it births perceptions that how they think is also how everyone else thinks. This is false. Everyone has different opinions. This seems obvious, but when you spend your days on social media, what you see there shapes your understanding of the world.
And social media affirming the false belief that your views are the only valid ones corrodes public discourse.
Problem #2: There’s no democracy in social media-based news
Aside from only seeing news you agree with, what’s “news” is arbitrary in the world of social media. In traditional news environments, desks staffed by reporters and editors — whose reputations hinge on accuracy above all else — use their expertise and experience to deem what’s credible. The idea behind a “democratized” platform is that every participant’s input is weighted equally. This is nice in theory — but fails to function in reality.
People generally want to get their news from news authorities who stake their reputation on reporting facts.
Then, there’s Meta, the company that owns Facebook. Facebook recently launched a program to promote honest journalism in a designated newsfeed. The idea is that it’s credible news if it appears in the newsfeed. The only way to get in the newsfeed is for an outlet to be designated as a legitimate source. Without this designation, the outlet’s articles will not appear in Facebook’s newsfeed.
One way to ease the wrath wrought by substandard social media news is to teach media literacy, nurturing students’ BS-O-meters.
The problem is that a social media company — in this case, Facebook — has positioned itself to dictate which outlets and what news are credible. This matters because Facebook is the most used social media platform for news, and now they’re in the business of anointing media outlets.
Let’s be clear: This is not the democratization of news. This is not news by the people. This is a social media giant asserting dominion.
Now, to be sure, I don’t purport that the state of the media is great — I’ve been critical of 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
Second to Facebook, the most used social media platform for news is Twitter. On top of Twitter’s boorish culture of incivility, its short-post format values attention-grabbing headlines over thoughtful discourse. Instead of fleshing out their ideas, Twitter users have no choice but to come up with statements in 280 characters or fewer. Add that to the fact that everyone’s racing to trend, and you get a contest of who can be the trendiest prick in the fewest words — minimalist jackassery, as it were.
While conservatives praise Elon Musk, Twitter’s new CEO, for his democratization of news through Twitter, the 280-character requirement bites conservatives too. 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 lefty a gun with two bullets — he’d put both in Elon Musk.” His point was that liberals’ hate for Musk outweighs their hate for dictators. Unfortunately for Elder, his succinct sarcasm didn’t land very nicely with Elon Musk’s mother.
What a hateful and threatening tweet. I hope you don’t have children or any family, because they would hang their heads in shame. https://t.co/INSjQSTKzx
— Maye Musk (@mayemusk) December 18, 2022
Musk later clarified for his mom that Elder’s Tweet is “fine.” But it’s a good example — and one of many thousands of examples — of how statements made with few words and no space for context can be misconstrued.
Twitter’s lack of space for elaboration is why I only express views in formats where I can offer my full breadth of reasoning — like in these columns or on radio shows. The issues we face are too complicated and nuanced to be captured in short Tweets.
Problem #4: Short posts nurture lazy reading
A benefit of digesting information from forums where people elaborate is that good reading habits can be nurtured. Reading is needed at a time when 54 percent of Americans (130 million people) lack literary proficiency.
Now, no one should have to dig through lengthy articles to stay up-to-date with current affairs. But one should seek credible sources that provide context, which professional journalism does. Relying on social media for information enables lazy reading and contentment with lacking details.
The problem is so flagrant and pervasive that there’s now a widely used acronym for long-form reading: “TLDR,” which stands for “too long, didn’t read.” How lazy.
Because Americans spend 1,300 hours on social media, consuming lots of information via short posts, they become accustomed to acquiring information in that format — short, quick, and insubstantial. It allows people to have, at minimum, an idea of the issues dominating the public discourse. But it lacks depth and promotes misunderstanding akin to political sloganeering: “Build back better.” “Make America great again.” Phrases that can mean everything and nothing, permitting people to form opinions with scant information.
Seeking truth in media
One way to ease the wrath wrought by substandard social media news is to teach media literacy, nurturing students’ BS-O-meters. According to Media Literacy Now, 14 states have policies mandating some form of media literacy instruction. Pennsylvania is not one of those states. And, as of this month, we are now behind New Jersey, which passed a law requiring K-12 media literacy education. This is a policy void the Pennsylvania General Assembly should fill.
Part of being a good citizen is thinking critically about everything you read, considering its impact on yourself, your family, your community, your country, and the world. We should enable students to initiate this kind of reflection and also hold ourselves accountable for that reflection.
Jemille Q. Duncan is a public policy professional, columnist, and Gates Scholar at Swarthmore College. He is the former aide of two Philadelphia City Councilmembers and a Pennsylvania State Senator. @jq_duncan
RELATED COVERAGE OF MEDIA CONSUMPTION AND CONSEQUENCESPhoto by Ian Maina for Unsplash.