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An interesting phenomenon has emerged over the past decade: internet users are becoming increasingly dependent on social media for the news. Given that they are spending the lion’s share of their time online on social media platforms such as Facebook, X (formerly known as Twitter), and YouTube, this makes perfect sense. It’s only natural that important news stories would find their way into social media news feeds.
But is there a drawback to people being dependent on social media for the news? Remember: before there was social media, people relied on TV, newspapers, and radio for the news. They changed their dinner plans to be able to watch the evening news. They made reading the daily newspaper a must-do every morning. And they listened to their favorite talk radio hosts when commuting to and from work. Today, however, most people skip TV, radio, and newspapers altogether in favor of TikTok and Facebook. Is that good for society or not?
“The News Finds Me”
If you ask any member of Generation Z, of course, there’s no problem whatsoever with being dependent on social media for the news. As they see it, social media algorithms have been so optimized that “the news finds me.” In other words, if the news is important enough, and if enough people are talking about it, then it will eventually find its way into their news feed.
To some extent, this is true. If you go to X.com, for example, you’ll easily see a list of trending terms, and many of these are linked to news events of the day. If a political candidate says something outrageous, or if there is a major conflict in the world, you can easily dig into your tweets and see what people are saying about it.
The problem, though, is that every social media platform is a company, and not a public service, and that means profits are first and foremost. For example, Facebook has already come out and said that “news” is not a winner on its platform. Going forward, Facebook will tweak its algorithm so that news items won’t be appearing in your news feed with as much regularity. So that certainly weakens the “news finds me” argument.
Another big problem is the loss of context with any news item appearing on social media. When you see a news story in your news feed, you don’t see the whole picture (literally). All you see is a short video or a quick soundbite, and you don’t really know the whole context of it. A political candidate supporting or bashing a certain idea might actually be doing so sarcastically.
Moreover, social media users are increasingly dependent on their peers. If your friends are only watching sports, then can they really be counted on to help you find news stories about politics? If your closest followers only care about video games, can they really help you understand breaking economic news? Sure, some news might find you, but not the type of news that you need.
Social media and the Israeli-Hamas conflict
In terms of the link between social media, journalism, and the news, it’s impossible to ignore what’s happening online with regard to Israel, Hamas, Gaza, and the Middle East. If social media is your only way of tracking what’s happening in this region, you likely only have a very limited view of what’s really happening. Instead of “news,” you are probably just getting “hot takes” from social media accounts with a lot of followers.
Moreover, consider what’s happening right now with Elon Musk and his X social media platform. He’s been accused of promoting misinformation and disinformation about Hamas and Israel, and has literally been given a 24-hour deadline by European regulators to scrub his platform of certain content. How can real news exist in an environment like this? If content does not fit into a popular narrative, is it possible that it will never be seen by anyone?
The future of social media, journalism, and news
All of this is raising real concerns about the use of social media as a news source. Social media is rife with fake news, biased news, misinformation, inaccurate news, and censored news. And, on top of that, the discussion around this news is extremely polarized, largely as a result of social media algorithms determined to maximize “engagement.” What goes viral today is highly charged, polarizing content.
All of this is to say that social media is having a hard time delivering on its early promise. In its early days, social media was praised as a new way to discover news. It promised a bright shining future of coherent, rational discussion, and the creation of free public forums where ideas could be debated by all people. But is that really the case today?