The double edge sword of social media: Information access vs misinformation

Social media platforms quickly become open-ended interfaces where people dump opinionated newsworthy articles for public consumption.

The use of social media as a tool for disseminating information has sparked a heated debate. While some argue that it provides a platform for spreading misinformation, others believe it offers a wider audience for individuals seeking to share their message. 

Social messaging platforms have unique advantages that mainstream media outlets often lack, including the ability to leverage the idiosyncrasies of others to ensure messages are well received. Scientific American has researched this topic, highlighting the potential for social media to amplify misinformation. 

Essentially, any news, regardless of its authenticity, can gain traction on social media if it stirs sympathy, while otherwise, it may be overlooked or deemed “irrelevant.”

But, it is becoming a slippery slope. The masses have become the guardians of news information, and the mainstream media can only scoop for some. 

Consequently, we must start asking questions, such as, who is worthy to deliver the news? Who vets them? Who regulates them? And what becomes of mainstream media? Which, unarguably, is becoming a twilight shadow of itself. If everyone online can share information, who becomes the judge? 

Is the influence of corporate interests on mainstream media outlets the new challenge? 

Conversations have cropped up on how the mainstream media can no longer be relied on for reliable news. People believe that the terrain of the media has become less independent and no longer transparent. It isn’t just because most mainstream media have tilted towards the owner’s interest, but people have become critically sceptical of what they are being fed as news.

On Wednesday, May 3, 2023, award-winning investigative journalist David Hundeyin lashed mainstream media for failing to report the criminal investigation with the president-elect’s son, Seyi Tinubu. At the same time, the investigation details had always been made available to the public.

Business Post has quoted Arise News TV host Reuben Abati to have said:

“Absolute objectivity is utopian. How do you expect journalists to earn trust? It is embarrassing these days with journalists denied salaries for maybe 10 or 12 months, while some blogs are becoming more authoritative than the mainstream media. And you find the mainstream media, even relying on blogs due to a lack of resources.”

There’s growing concern that major news outlets are increasingly politicising their reporting. While they may be cautious about what news they share, their primary focus is often on the potential impact on themselves rather than on their audience. This has created a complex and confusing situation, but the underlying reason is clear: news outlets prioritise their interests over the public’s right to unbiased and informative reporting.

Incredibly, even when faced with irrefutable evidence, studies have shown that journalists are often reluctant to ask tough questions for fear of losing their jobs or being dismissed by their corporate employers. This reluctance to pursue vital information can have far-reaching consequences, potentially altering the course of history and leaving the public in the dark while the truth remains buried.

Social media: Citizen journalism boost or mis/disinformation challenge?

The audience notices such blindspots and how they are blatantly displayed repeatedly. Surely, they become concerned and soon doubtful about what is transmitted as news. They can see what should be informed but get confused and alarmed at what is reported. They lose their trust in these terrains of news outlets and begin to question where their priorities lay. 

But has social media suddenly assumed an interface where people are confident that other users will trust their reports as authentic? It is a new dynamism of news reporting that gives people the power to inform others about the details of an issue. 

This was what played out during the #EndSARS protest that happened on October 20, 2020. Aside from mainstream media reporting, it was also reported how participants (majorly, the youth demographic) utilised social media to record the happenings of the campaign. 

As recent events have shown, social media has become a formidable force in journalism. When a video of Nigerian evacuees stranded on the road went viral on Twitter, it highlighted the power of social media to draw attention to important issues. The drivers had refused to continue the journey due to the Nigerian government not fully settling them, and it was only after the video gained traction that the matter was resolved.

However, while social media can facilitate active journalism, it also poses a challenge in the form of mis and disinformation. Fact-checkers have their work cut out for them as users endlessly share unverified posts, making the channels for false news largely porous. Despite the occasional unverified piece from mainstream media, social media has become a breeding ground for controversial and sensitive posts that can quickly spread like wildfire.

Take, for instance, the tale of Moroccan and Paris Saint-German (PSG) player Achraf Hakimi, whose divorce from Hiba Abouk made the latter demand half of his property in settlement. It was widely reported how the PSG player had put all his assets in his mother’s name, thus having no legal ownership of them and denying his 36-year-old wife’s claim to any of them. 

The seemingly novel story had been shared, reposted and even headlined by some major news outlets. But Jonas Nyabor, a fact-checker for West African fact-checking platform DUBAWA, reported the news as false

He wrote that the initial story had come from a parody account on Facebook. But before anybody reconciles himself with the reality of Mr Nyabor’s investigation, most of the false stories had already been believed to be true.

Possible ways out

That only puts to bare the worrying challenges that the existence of social media can present in the world of news reporting. It causes people to become conflicted and question their intelligence about the veracity of a news report.

However, the quality of the online information environment can be significantly improved when: 

  1. Fact-checkers play a crucial role in combating mis and disinformation on social media. They can investigate claims made in posts and articles and provide accurate information to the public. Fact-checking organisations should be supported and promoted so that people know their existence and can turn to them for reliable information.
  1. People need to be educated on verifying information and identifying misleading content. This includes understanding the difference between credible sources and unreliable or biased ones. Educating people on fact-checking and verifying information is critical in curbing the spread of mis and disinformation.
  1. Collaboration between traditional news outlets and citizen journalists can improve the accuracy of news reporting on social media. Traditional news outlets can provide guidance and training on journalistic standards and ethics, while citizen journalists can provide valuable perspectives and first-hand accounts of events.
  1. Social media platforms need to be more transparent about how they curate content and how algorithms work. This will help users understand why certain content appears on their feeds and enable them to make informed decisions about what they consume and share.
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