The relationship between social media and the news–particularly news related to politics–has been a popular topic of conversation recently in the United States. Facebook especially has emerged just recently as a major platform for the average American to get their news; 30% of the general population receives news through the site (Anderson and Caumont, 2014) and I would argue that the site has become so relevant in people’s perception of news and the media itself that a significant number of Americans are indirectly influenced by the news that is shared on Facebook. When I first created a Facebook profile around six years ago, I was exposed to very little news through the site, if any. Now, however, the majority of my feed consists of news stories of one type or another. This can partly be attributed to my decision to actively follow some news outlets, but it is also due to the growing popularity of using Facebook to stay up to date on current events. At face value, this phenomenon may appear to be harmless or even positive; more people being more informed about the news seems like a good thing. However, the freedom and quick spread of information on social media comes with some serious concerns. Now that more individuals, companies, and publications can easily share their own coverage on the Internet, there is no requirement to be unbiased in reporting news–or even accurate. For the first time in history, consumers of American media can choose from thousands of different online sources that present themselves as “news.” These sources range from completely inaccurate in their reporting, to heavily biased, to well-researched and accurate. On top of the obvious problems with consuming media that is not based in fact, the issue that in my opinion is most concerning is that defining what news sources fall into which of the aforementioned categories can be completely different depending on who you ask. The “fake news” issue leads to the spread of misinformation and has contributed so heavily to the deepening partisan divide in America that it has become difficult to not only solve issues, but to even debate them effectively, which is a huge detriment to political and social progress.
The Schneider et al. text (2012) discusses the fact that negative coverage of the government has contributed to a huge increase of people reporting a lack of trust in the government. This has strong consequences in itself, such as lower voter turnout due to a cynical attitude towards the government (Schneider, et al., 2012). Now, however, the Internet is an even more prevalent media source; while it may be “nontraditional” media, it has become just as if not more influential than “traditional” media. America is now grappling with an even more complex and, I think, dangerous problem–what happens when people stop trusting the media itself? What happens when our government stops trusting the media? The current POTUS has clearly and directly condemned certain news media outlets, such as CNN, as promoting and distributing “fake news”. In addition to more people being able to falsely present their publications as “real” news in the freedom of the Internet, this undercutting of the validity of the mainstream media (or “traditional” media) has encouraged many supporters of the current President to seek out alternative sources to get their news–which the Internet was eager to provide. While it is absolutely worthwhile to think critically about the media and recognize biased or shoddy reporting, and whichever news sources one deems “accurate,” be it mainstream media sources or otherwise, anyone can see that it is a big problem when citizens disagree on what is a lie and what is the truth.
Historically, the political divide has been strong since the very birth of the USA; however, the issues have mostly revolved around differing perspectives on how to solve the problems in our country; now, people don’t even agree on the reality of the problems themselves. This creates a divide that is even more impossible to cross. One strong example of this type of problem is the issue of climate change. Many Americans consume and trust media sources that present climate change as a man-made, urgent problem that needs to be addressed; however, many Americans consume and trust media sources that present climate change as a nonissue that has nothing to do with human activities. If we all trusted the latter sources, there would be no climate change debate. If we all trusted the former sources, then the debate would center around the different perspectives on the best way to address the issue, rather than the current state of the conflict, which mostly centers on whether or not it is a problem at all. This phenomenon can be seen in a wide variety of political issues and is magnified greatly by the diversity of information available on social media.
This is a problem that is essential to solve if we want to make any kind of progress as a nation. It is impossible to do effective problem solving when the public is in this curious state of volatile stagnation, in which extremely heated and sometimes even violent debates are occurring daily on social media, in real life, and within the government, but very little is actually being done to move towards compromise or solutions. In order to address the fake news phenomenon, critical thinking must be encouraged, people need to be more willing to question themselves and others (i.e, asking someone you disagree with why they believe what they do, as opposed to immediately dismissing them as brainwashed or gullible), and there must be some kind of agreement on what sources are valid and what sources are not. One good way to do this is to research the sources you get your news from, read about their backgrounds, who is funding them, etc. and think about how those things may affect the perspectives being presented by the source. A good place to start is PolitiFact’s list of fake news sites and what their respective agendas are (assuming, of course, that the individual trusts PolitiFact itself). Diversifying where you get your news from is another step people can take. Ironically, despite the large amount of information and perspectives made available by social media, the way sites like Facebook work make it easy to make your profile an echo chamber of political opinions. Purposefully following, listening to, and truly considering multiple sources’ information, provided you do so carefully and with an open mind, can give a user of social media a more holistic view of the news and help them to reach more informed conclusions. Finally, citizens can mitigate the harmful effects of misinformation spread by doing outside research about history, politics, and the way the government works. Biased news lacking in journalistic integrity can lead to ignorance about the government workings; for example, those who get their news from entertainment talk shows have shown decreased understanding of the government (Schneider, et al., 2012). Social media also tends to both play into and encourage the desire for instant gratification, and many people do not learn in depth about the news via social media. Statistics show that people spend less time on, read less pages from, and visit news sites less often when referred through Facebook as opposed to directly visiting the news site (Anderson and Caumont, 2014). If individuals are going to be politically engaged and confident in their knowledge, it is important to have a deeper understanding of current events than can be provided in a short video or by skimming headlines while scrolling through a feed. These solutions are based on active efforts being made by individual citizens, which can be encouraged but of course not forced. Unfortunately, it is an issue of such fundamental complexity that neither the media nor the government can really effectively intervene; firstly, many Americans don’t trust either entity, and secondly, because freedom of the press and of speech are highly valued rights in America, in most cases it is impossible to simply “shut down” a given source, even ones that can be proven fake (although, again, many might not consider “proof” to be valid proof, depending on its source). Such a complicated problem requires a complicated solution, or more probably, set of solutions. The way the trend is currently, though, if we do not find some kind of common reality to work from soon the divisiveness and vitriol is only going to become more extreme.
Anderson, Monica, and Andrea Caumont. “How Social Media Is Reshaping News.” Pew Research Center, Pewresearch.org, 24 Sept. 2014, www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/09/24/how-social-media-is-reshaping-news/
Gillin, Joshua. “PolitiFact’s Guide to Fake News Websites.” Politicfact.com, PolitiFact, 20 Apr. 2017, www.politifact.com/punditfact/article/2017/apr/20/politifacts-guide-fake-news-websites-and-what-they/.
Schneider, F., Gruman, J., & Coutts, L. (2012) Applied social psychology: Understanding and addressing social and practical problems. 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.