Social media isn’t ruining journalism. All of us are.
A cursory Google search for “social media ruining journalism” will turn up several pages of improperly SEO’ed articles with nearly identical titles. Facebook is killing real journalism! Twitter has turned journalists into celebutantes! tumblr—eh, no one is using tumblr anymore.
The argument goes like this: after the Great Recession in 2008, media companies scrambled to remain profitable. Competition got fiercer than ever, and advertisers drew tight on the proverbial purse strings.
To convince advertisers that your news site would make them money, you had to show not only that traffic was coming into your website, but that the traffic was engaged enough to interact with your website. People had to stay on the page, click links, leave comments, and share the sucker. Queue a flood of clickbait headlines, shock-pieces, manufactured controversies, and inane celebrity gossip to keep the traffic flowing.
And what better way to promote garbage journalism than through the Internet’s great trash heap, the mountain known as social media?
Initially, social media wasn’t the pay-to-play platform it is today. Coders at sites like Facebook will claim their news-feed algorithms are designed to promote content that is unique and relevant. Yet, as we learned after the 2016 elections, the geniuses at Facebook unwittingly exposed millions of their users to genuinely fake news with headlines like “Horrific Hillary Clinton Snuff Film Circulating on Dark Web,” and—my personal favorite from that year—“Woman arrested for defecating on boss’ desk after winning the lottery.”
Facebook has since taken steps to correct the misinformation nightmare they facilitated two years ago. Instead of allowing publishers to dictate what pops up in our feeds, now our friends and family do that by sharing articles through their accounts.
That’s one way to ruin journalism: by relying on regular folks to decide what’s unique and relevant.
To see what I mean, just look at last year’s most-shared content on Facebook. The music video for “Despacito” took the top spot with 22 million shares. Which is fair, because it’s an awesome song. But the most-shared news article wasn’t about the ongoing Russia probe or that our planet has entered an extinction-level event; it was about Linkin Park frontman Chester Bennington’s suicide. A tragedy, sure, but how relevant was this loss to the greater scheme of things?
A little further down the list and we hit the next most-shared news article at 3 million shares. That one was about Trump reforming federal welfare programs, which is relevant. One out of five Americans rely on government assistance. Tied with the Trump story is one about 20 million Muslims marching against ISIS, also relevant.
But drop down one more, at 2.6 million shares: “Garth Brooks Giving Guitar to a Fan with Cancer.” Really, America?
Perhaps I’m cynical, but the average person doesn’t know what journalism actually entails, nor do most Americans care to engage with earth-shattering, blow-your-shit-open scoops. Just scroll through the comments section for any given (legit) news article, and you’ll see what I mean. Pages upon pages of people calling each other cucks, snowflakes, incels, libtards, Russian trolls, and the list goes on.
I’m not being anecdotal, either. Most folks spend more time flaming each other in the comments sections than they do reading the content they’re commenting on. Nearly 60 percent of social media users share news articles without ever reading the damn things. A whopping 90 percent of people who actually read online news articles don’t fact-check the content, even though every article provides links to sources (or should). And even when people read the articles start to finish, there’s a good chance they won’t fully grasp what they read, as studies show the average American operates at a seventh-grade reading level.
Seventh grade. That means 12-year-olds. Most people sharing news content on social media possess the critical reading skills of 12-year-olds.
We can blame schools, but let’s be honest—critical thinking can’t be taught.
Parents? Parents can’t be held accountable for their adult offspring.
Can we blame the media industry itself? Maybe I’m biased, but that’s a big no. The industry relies on a complex mesh of mathematical formulas devised by private, non-journalistic interests.
So who’s really to blame for the death of old-school, banally balanced journalism?
It’s all of us. We’re the ones who click the clickbait. We’re the ones who tweet about celeb gossip. We’re the ones who share articles that were crafted with the sole purpose of pissing people off.
If you want to save journalism from the shadowy clutches of irrelevancy, start by sharing stuff that matters. That doesn’t mean you can’t share the newest iteration of “Hit or Miss” Girl, but try to balance the nonsense with content that has true social value. Share stuff that’s advanced or complicated. Provide context or commentary in the status section of your post. Fact-check articles.
In other words, if you want to save online journalism, you’re going to have to become a bit of a journalist yourself.