On the Front Lines: Next decade will see social media emerge as top news source
In the beginning, there was simply word of mouth. It was a tool with enough coherence to document an immense history, but it was also often missing details.
Then came script, and from script came print. Our toolsets became more robust and with them so did our exchanges. But along the way, as our once-interpersonal conversations evolved into collective consumption, we lost our means of response.
By the 20th century, man's exchange of information became a funnel divided between the few with the expediency to broadcast their message and a naive majority to consume it with extreme bias. There would always be independent voices in the pockets of the communication world, detached from an agenda, but outstood by the network juggernauts.
The internet became a platform where anyone's voice could reach any number of peers. Mankind's most primitive method for exchanging news and conducting social interaction became re-empowered by the internet through its new media: social media.
In 2019, social media (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat) has surpassed the age-old medium of print in delivering news. By 2030, it will surpass broadcast and become the leading platform for news consumption.
According to the American Press Institute, journalism as a practice has a duty to independently tell the truth. The truth is not something that is frequently regulated on social media but independence is a central theme. There is no controlled narrative in the overall landscape of social media — it is an open platform where perspectives have the freedom to test and correct each other.
Unlike a broadcast news industry driven by the practice of polarization and pandering, social media allows for instantaneous and visible responses between source and audience. This utility allows perspectives to balance each other out, painting a multifaceted picture for its users rather than a hyper-engaging-but-narrow-sighted agenda from the likes of Newscorp, Comcast or Turner Broadcasting.
The American Press Institute claims that journalism has a responsibility to make news interesting and relevant. News outlets on social media continue to experiment with the interactive tools the platforms offer, the same tools offered to independent users. An example is the "Ask me a question" feature on Instagram. It is an app that allows for an account to openly publish user responses to a topic on the account's feed for its entire audience to see.
These tools have already led to social media surging as a news platform in the US. In December 2018, Pew Research Center published a study showing that more Americans started getting their news from social media rather than print. The same study showed a decline in television as a news resource.
The decline of print has been ongoing for decades and while social media surpassing a harshly declining medium by no means makes it the leading platform yet, it is the first step in an ongoing trend. The study showed that the only other medium trending upward as a news source was news websites.
Websites have the more lucrative potential as a news platform but driving traffic to those websites is what determines just how lucrative they can be. This makes social media a higher-priority platform as a massive, pre-established user base exists in a competitive atmosphere with potential to drive traffic to the more extensive and controlled platform of websites. It is a marriage that is set to surpass the over-the-air mediums that have led news for the past century.
In 2019, television is still the top medium for news consumption, but it is hardly on pace to stay that way. An article published by The New York Times last May outlined the challenges television networks are facing in an increasingly digital-focused entertainment landscape. The article showed that ad rates and sales for television were on a downward trend while digital ad rates had already surpassed them with a continuously expanding gap.
That growing ad rate among digital platforms allows the companies that own them to make investments in challenging television. In August, Facebook announced that it will be introducing a news tab. Not only is it making investments into the development of this feature, but according to an article in The Wall Street Journal, it is also investing millions in licensing third-party content for the page.
With all of these outlets for information comes a wave of misinformation. Empowering all members of a community can be dangerous and blur the lines between ethical and unethical. In the digital news world, these flaws manifest as "fake news." It is news content that ranges from misleading to 100% fabricated and these fabrications can often be the most prominent on social media. It is a serious obstacle for the credibility of social media as a news source.
But just as the bubonic plague drove humanity to adapt, overcome and thrive into the age of the Renaissance, from the plague of misinformation will dawn a renaissance of social media news content — it just requires some maintenance.
There will always be misinformation on the internet, just as there will always be misinformation in life. As society becomes more literate in the navigation of social media and as new generations more ingratiated in the internet replace older ones, fake news will become something easily identified and commonly condemned.
The tools, audience and dynamics of social media can improve journalism by enriching the reporting and storytelling. The multimedia aspects can engage a public that increasingly uses mobile devices to access news. Unfortunately, some might say, people, especially the young, simply do not read printed newspapers much anymore, but they still want the news.
Research suggests that the more engaged with news the public becomes, the more well-informed the citizenry gets, which is the cornerstone of a healthy democracy and is central to the core purpose of journalism.
Jackson Thompson is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in journalism. He is the sports editor at The Daily Targum.
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