Between Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, social networks have undoubtedly taken the center stage of news media. Anonymous posts are referenced on television to reflect public opinion, videos of significant incidents are shared faster on social media than on any news network, and a tweet with no more than 280 characters can spark worldwide conversation. The mass and speed of information on social media prompt us to indulge in it every day to keep up with the latest events.
The nature of social media, however, also burdens its users with misinformation and controversies. Platforms are continuously filled with fake news. Ultimately, social media interferes with our ability to clearly evaluate the information we receive. As consumers, we should avoid obtaining our news from social media alone, and we should be more cautious when we come across information online.
What with the speed and accessibility of social media, an increasing number of people rely on it for news. According to a Pew Research Center survey, 67 percent of American adults consume news from social media. Social networks, however, have transformed media into a format in which we cannot fully judge its legitimacy. The system values speed over depth and accuracy; a study by “Science Magazine” found that people on social media are more likely to spread lies than truth, and online algorithms exacerbate this problem because of the popularity of false information. Thus, news feeds and timelines are jammed with extreme biases and inaccuracies. News is packaged into smaller mediums that don’t reveal the whole story, leaving users with an endless flow of unreliable information.
Responses to the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., are clear examples of the relay of misinformation on social networks. Hours after the Parkland shooting, false claims flooded the social media landscape, many fueled by propaganda bots. Conspiracy website Infowars posted an article claiming that the shooter was affiliated with ISIS, which went viral on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. A YouTube video labeling David Hogg a “crisis actor” landed number one on the trending list, garnering 200,000 views before being taken down.
Social media can cause misdirection and controversy even from highly credible sources. A statistic that the Parkland shooting was the eighteenth school shooting of the year was retweeted by Senator Bernie Sanders and cited by major news outlets such as MSNBC and BBC. The number turned out to be misleading, as it included any instance in which a gun was fired within school grounds, regardless of whether there were any students or teachers on campus. Leading news organizations, in an effort to adapt to new technologies, fall into the same mistake of sacrificing accuracy for speed.
I find that I keep coming back to social media for my news for two reasons: one, I am lazy, and two, I am biased. Social media is attractive because I have complete control over what I see. I get to read what I want to believe and reject other opinions and perspectives. Given the limited amount of content we can post, news on social media is often decontextualized and heavily opinionated, and I don’t always take the time to look at multiple sides of an issue and think critically. Now, after becoming aware of this issue, I try to be more thoughtful about the information I digest from social media and seek out more balanced discourse.
Instead of scrolling mindlessly through inaccurate news feeds for information, read in-depth articles on the web. Get news in print. Take advantage of the resources provided by the Oliver Wendell Holmes Library, which offers students digital access to reliable, high-quality news publications such as “The New York Times.” And when you come across a questionable post or comment on the Internet, no matter how popular it is, double check to see if it is legitimate. Once we see the bigger picture and consider both sides of an argument, we can find a solid stance on an issue. Just keep in mind that most real-life events are too complex to summarize in 280 characters.