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Liked, shared, delivered: Do you get your news from social media?

| Monday, April 26, 2021

Kerry Schneeman | The Observer

When I log onto social media, my typical feed consists of an ample mix of my friends’ pictures, memes and political content. Now more than ever, we use social media to get, spread and react to news. This can be a good thing: social media allows ordinary people to share their viewpoints and perspectives. We can share news quickly, and gain support for our ideas very quickly as well. 

But here’s my problem with it: as I’ve written before“For better or worse, social media is optimized for virality. Algorithmic, activity-based timelines ensure that the opinions you’re more likely to see are the ones that cause the most buzz, and that appeal to strong emotions — not always the opinions that get the facts straight.” 

I fear that we’re reacting to news more than we’re processing it, thinking about it or acting productively based on it. According to NewsGuard, the amount of social media engagement (likes and comments) with news websites that, “fail to meet basic standards of credibility and/or transparency” increased from 8% in 2019 to 17% in 2020. 

While I think social media can be a great way to become introduced to a particular topic or issue, if our education stops there, we’re doing ourselves and our country a disservice. There is only so much information we can glean from a short, punchy infographic on Instagram, and political issues are rarely simple enough to be reduced to a short blurb. When you see a political post on Instagram, how often does it cite reliable news sources? If it cites news sources at all, do you check the original source on your own? And even if you do, you may encounter a further information problem: mainstream media outlets have been increasing the emotional, storytelling and argumentative bent to their work in recent years. 

A report on media literacy from the Rand Corporation tried to empirically measure how American news corporations have changed their presentation and information dissemination styles between 1989, 2000, and 2017. They found that, “post-2000 reporting engaged in more storytelling and emphasized interactions, personal perspective, and emotion more heavily than did stories in the pre-2000 period.” Prime time programming after the year 2000 saw a, “quantifiable shift toward subjective, abstract, directive and argumentative language, with content based more on the expression of opinion than on the provision of facts. This was accompanied by an increase in airtime devoted to advocacy for those opinions in contrast to balanced descriptions of context or events.” I imagine for the many Americans who grew up with the news being more “balanced” and less opinion-based, this switch in presentation style may have led us to putting more weight on opinion than is apt. 

Take this column as a call to refresh and diversify the sources from which you get your news. No one likes to think they’re getting their news from an echo chamber, but in this polarized age, there’s a good chance we are discounting certain opinions without really taking the time to engage critically with them. Take time to collect all the relevant details when you hear a news story before reacting online. Read long form articles. Read books. We are living in an age where opinions hold a lot of weight. No more than ever, getting our facts straight is the minimum of what we owe to each other as Americans. 

Renee Yaseen is a junior who majors in economics with minors in theology and the philosophy, politics, & economics (PPE) program. In her free time, she writes poems, hangs out with loved ones, and works on her software startup. She can be reached via the chat on a shared Google Doc at 3 a.m., on Twitter @ReneeYaseen or by email at [email protected].

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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