Should social media be used for news?

Owen Peterson, Managing Editor

As young Americans increasingly turn away from traditional media such as TV, radio and print in favor of getting their news through social media, concerns should be raised regarding how this may impact their perceptions and opinions.

48% of U.S. adults reported that they got news from social media “often” or “sometimes” in a 2021 Pew Research Center poll, which is down from 53% in the 2020 Pew poll, but a significant amount nonetheless.

Looking at political coverage specifically, 18% of U.S. adults use social media as their primary source of political news according to another 2020 Pew poll, a percentage only trumped by the amount of U.S. adults who use news websites/apps for political news (25%).

That same poll also shows what most would have already assumed: that most of the people who use social media as a primary source of political news are between the ages of 18 and 29 (48%). Not only that, but the 18-29-year-old demographic also makes up the smallest percentage of users of traditional media, such as print (7%), radio (12%) and network TV (5%).

This shift to social media for news comes as a result of the ever-rapid integration of technology into society (particularly by that younger generation), but likely also comes as a result of the overall distrust of the media, with only 37% of U.S. adults trusting the media to report the news “fairly” and “accurately” according 2021 Gallup poll.

Whatever the causes for this shift, certain concerns arise over the usage of social media as a primary news source, including the creation of echo chambers and the lack of fact checking/gatekeeping.Image of various social medias

In an environment where one dictates what they are shown and who they wish to receive information from, it’s easy to accidentally (or purposely) create an echo chamber — an environment in which one only encounters beliefs that concur with their preexisting ones, reinforcing prior beliefs and ignoring alternate ones.

Echo chambers aren’t unique to social media, but the design of the platforms lends itself to their creation, giving users the ability to receive more of a certain perspective (following, liking) and filter out others entirely (blocking, muting or even simply not interacting).

Beyond a user’s direct influence over what they see on social media, the algorithms of social media platforms function to send users similar content to that which they already see/like, further solidifying their schemata.

Even when not done intentionally, it’s not hard to see how these echo chambers can be created over time as a result of seemingly inconsequential decisions. A few offhand likes and follows, combined with the odd block or two, and the feedback loop has already started. From there, all the offered perspectives become uniform under the guise of being a true consensus, leading the user to a false sense of reality.

This, of course, places the onus on users to carefully curate the content they consume in order to get balanced and unbiased coverage.

In addition to this, social media hosts a large amount of misinformation, making it all the more important for one to be vigilant about what they believe.

In the 2020 Pew poll, those who used social media as their primary source of political news were exposed to conspiracy theories much more than any other group, with 26% of them being exposed “a lot” and 54% “a little.” On top of this, the social media group also showed some of the lowest amount of political knowledge, with 57% displaying “low political knowledge” and only 17% displaying “high political knowledge (only the “Local TV” group performed worse).

While the results of that second set of figures could reasonably be due to a general lack of interest in politics (as is often characteristic of the younger generation that makes up a lot of the social media group), the first set is more revealing, as such exposure to misinformation can alter one’s perception of what is true (especially under the false pretense of viewing balanced and accurate coverage).

Traditionally, media outlets act as gatekeepers of information, regulating the flow of information and what viewers see, and while this is not a flawless system by any means, whatever protection that it does offer is diluted in an environment where people can post whatever they want.

This is not something likely to be stopped, either, as moderation of information on social media platforms to that extent is a massive undertaking, and, cynically speaking, the platforms profit from increased usage, and nothing drives engagement quite like controversy.

On a positive note, a study done by PR firm DKC showed that 48% of Gen Zers (despite getting most of their news on social media) said that they generally do not trust social media.

All of this is not to say that everything on social media is false and you should delete all the apps immediately, but to contend that more scrutiny is required when receiving news on platforms where information is less moderated than it would be coming from a traditional media outlet.

Steps as simple as actually clicking links (not just reading the headline), seeing if other sources are reporting the same information and double-checking if the account that posted is authentic can help anyone avoid misinformation.