Essay 1 – Finding True News in Democratized Social Media

Living in the age of the Internet, we are bombarded with information and media every single day. We are extremely fortunate to live in a country that allows social media platforms to be democratic spaces that allow and encourage dialogue between people, as there are countries in the world who censor the internet from their citizens. With the privilege of being a part of uncensored, democratic social media, we as Internet users now have a responsibility to search for the truth in our media amongst the abundance of information we are exposed to every day. According to Pew Research Center (PRC), among the 38 countries they surveyed, 14 of them had 50% or more adults receive their news online every day (Pew Research Centre [PRC], 2018). With the majority of people looking to the Internet and social media to find news, the task of trying to find accurate and true news can be extremely difficult. 

Firstly, it is important to discuss how social media is a democratic space for dialogue, at least in our country, Canada. Social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are places where people are able to express themselves, including their views and opinions, freely and openly. Using Facebook’s Terms of Service as an example, they convey that, “[they] want people to use Facebook to express themselves and to share content that is important to them, but not at the expense of the safety and well-being of others or the integrity of our community” (Facebook Terms of Service, 2018, section 3). They list what their users cannot post, which includes things that violate the law, infringe or violate someone else’s rights, and viruses or malicious code (Facebook Terms of Service, 2018). In this sense, as long as users are not breaking the law or violating someone else’s rights on these platforms, they are allowed to post and engage with others as they please, making them democratic spaces for dialogue. However in other countries around the world, this is not the case.

Donna Tam wrote an article for Marketplace on the various countries where social media and the Internet is censored. China has a strong dedication to censoring social media as millions of people are employed by the government for this sole purpose. Facebook and Twitter have also been banned from the country since 2009 when people used it to organize protests that turned into riots. North Korea officially banned Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube in April, 2016. The few people who have access to the Internet in North Korea are only able to view government-sanctioned intranet (Marketplace, 2016). Tam names other countries like Iran and Bangladesh who share similar stories, however the fact that there are countries in the world that still have censored social media is evidence enough as to how powerful social media is as a democratic space for dialogue. The rest of this essay will demonstrate how even when people live in a country that does not censor their social media and Internet, having democratized social media can make it incredibly difficult for people to find true news and information, similar to the countries who have theirs censored.

Looking at social media specifically, PRC reports 68% of adult Americans occasionally get their news from social media outlets; however at the same time, 57% of these social media news consumers expect the news they see on these sites to be widely inaccurate (PRC, 2018). If people believe the news they see on social media will be inaccurate, then why do so many look to these sites to find news in the first place? Again, PRC explains how it is the convenience of it that draws people (PRC, 2018). The convenience of social media as a source for news seems to outweigh the most disliked part of it, “inaccuracy… unreliable sources, lack of fact checking, and ‘fake news’”(PRC, 2018, para. 16). However, social media is a democratic space for dialogue where it is acceptable to post inaccurate information. In this sense, if the people who look to social media for their main source of news desire to find true news, they need to be prepared to source and fact check what they are reading and seeing.  

Social media is a place filled with opinions. A major factor contributing to how well people are able to find true news online, and especially on social media, is how well they are able to distinguish between fact and opinion. This task seems to becoming more difficult with the vast amount of ‘news’ outlets and accounts that are popping up in every corner of the Internet combined with peoples’ freedom to post and share whatever they choose on their social media platforms. This is inevitably a part of social media being democratic, however it makes it all the more difficult for users to determine what is true news. People are often considering what they see on social media platforms as true without conducting any source or fact checking to see what kind of bias the source has, as well as if what they are viewing is fact or opinion based. PRC conducted a study to see how well the public can distinguish between factual or opinion based news. 5,035 U.S. adults were examined, all with various levels of political awareness, digital savviness, trust in news, and interest in news. These are factors that PRC believes has an effect on peoples’ ability to determine if news is fact or opinion based. Each adult was shown five factual statements and five opinion statements and was asked to distinguish between the two. Majority of the group got three out of the five statements in each set correct, far fewer got all five correct, and about a quarter got most or all five wrong (PRC, 2018). In addition to the factors mentioned above that contribute to how well people can distinguish between fact and opinion, another factor includes political positions. Another study PRC conducted shows that, “Republicans and Democrats are more likely to think news statements are factual when they appeal to their side – even if they are opinions” (PRC, 2018, para. 9). This has lead to a major division between Republican and Democrat citizens in the U.S.

It should be reiterated how living in a country where social media and the Internet is uncensored is a privilege. We as Canadians are able to discuss our views and opinions freely with others online. However, since social media is a democratic space for dialogue, we need to be responsible as Internet users and learn skills to help us distinguish between real and fake news. It is important to learn skills like how to differentiate between fact and opinion statements, but also be more conscious about what we see on social media and not take everything at face value. The onus is on us now as Internet consumers to be proactive in uncovering true news.

References:

Matsa, K. E., & Shearer, E. (2018, September 10). News Use Across Social Media Platforms 2018. Retrieved from http://www.journalism.org/2018/09/10/news-use-across-social-media-platforms-2018/

Mitchell, A., Gottfried, J., Barthel, M., & Sumida, N. (2018, June 18). Can Americans Tell Factual From Opinion Statements in the News? Retrieved from http://www.journalism.org/2018/06/18/distinguishing-between-factual-and-opinion-statements-in-the-news/

Mitchell, A., Simmons, K., Matsa, K. E., & Silver, L. (2018, January 11). People Around World Want Unbiased News. Retrieved from http://www.pewglobal.org/2018/01/11/publics-globally-want-unbiased-news-coverage-but-are-divided-on-whether-their-news-media-deliver/

Tam, D. (2016, May 27). Social media censorship from around the world. Retrieved from https://www.marketplace.org/2016/05/27/world/social-media-censorship-around-world

Facebook Terms of Service. (2018, April 19). Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/terms.php

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