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As it stands right now, the common consensus is that the major social media platforms – and especially Facebook – have failed in their responsibility to users. According to this line of thought, Facebook and others have been completely blindsided by the onslaught of fake news, misinformation, disinformation and bot propaganda and have been either unable or unwilling to put a stop to it. Yet, if you think about it, determining what is real news on social media will always be up to the user and not the platform. Sure, the platform can (and should) make adjustments along the way but, at the end of the day, it all comes back to the user.
Relying on Facebook for news is a recipe for disaster
Users, after all, have a choice of how they consume “real” news. In the past, this meant watching the evening news on one of the major network TV channels or reading the daily newspaper from a respected media icon like the New York Times or Washington Post. But, for the past decade, people have increasingly been getting their news from social media. Who has time to read the daily newspaper for hard-hitting political news when you can just as easily (and at no cost) get your news from Facebook? Today, social media is the primary way that people get and consume their news, and this has several very real consequences.
First of all, it means that “real” news is daily commingled with all sorts of other “fluffier” news (like news about celebrities). It means that it is getting harder and harder for people to discern what really matters, and it is also putting more and more pressure on even the most trusted media outlets to sensationalize their news. The Trump presidency, while perhaps a mixed bag in general for the American population, has been a goldmine for media outlets and for all the social media platforms where this content can be shared. The second real consequence is that it is getting a lot harder to differentiate between “real” media outlets and all the “not so real” media outlets like BuzzFeed that specifically traffic in short, digestible, meme-worthy nuggets of content.
Ohio State study on social media
To better frame this argument, consider a recent 2020 academic study from Ohio State University, in which researchers looked carefully at the way users consume news. What they found is that users who view a blend of real news and fake news (including satire, parody and good old fashioned misinformation) have a very difficult time differentiating between the value of the news source. In other words, if you’re getting all your news from Facebook, a post from the New York Times and a post from BuzzFeed looks exactly the same, and in the minds of users, has exactly the same value.
What the researchers recommended was, at the very least, separating out “real” news content into categories like “Current Affairs” so that people are not commingling entertainment and fluffy news with real news. Moreover, the researchers suggested that the social media platforms should alter the color, format or font style of news items to make them “pop” in a newsfeed and help to distinguish them from a barrage of cat photos and selfies. The bottom line here is the following: if you show news and entertainment fare in the same Facebook newsfeed, you’re asking for trouble.
Common sense advice for social media users
Mark Twain once famously remarked, “A lie can travel around the world and back again while the truth is lacing up its boots.” And that’s exactly what we are observing with social media today. By the time a “fake” news story has been shared, commented on, and liked a few thousand times, it’s already too late. You’ve already changed the way people think and it’s impossible for the truth to ever catch up. So buyers beware on social media: if you are relying on Facebook for all of your news, you get what you pay for. And, in the case of social media, that’s exactly zero.