In an era of changing technology, our reading habits have been shaped and affected by the advent of digital devices as internet access becomes more prevalent. Today, the internet has become the main source of news, far above conventional forms of communication such as newspapers, TV, and radio. Significantly, survey results suggest that Millennials do not browse news sites or read newspapers, but rather spend substantial numbers of hours on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram, and rely on their social media feeds.
Specifically, according to the study, News Use Across Social Media Platforms 2016, 62 percent of all Americans now get their news from social media. The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism research also observes that “Facebook was the most common source — used by 44 percent of all those surveyed — to watch, share and comment on news.” Following this was YouTube that came in at 19 percent, and Twitter at 10 percent (See Figure 1).
Why is this trend important to take note of? It is crucial because by studying this phenomenon, we can understand how social media is shaping or even changing the perspective of the younger generation, whom we call “the future.”
In contrast to readers who actively obtain their news from various platforms, younger internet users who get their news from social media sites may be passive news-seekers who rely on news that pop out from social media pages or accounts that they commonly follow. Notably, their social networks decide and shape their opinions and perspectives. Social media users are exposed to news shared or recommended by their friends. When they happen to come across certain news stories by chance while browsing through their social media feeds, this results in selective participation in news and could possibly lead to incomplete news experience. Such news discovery paths could be limited, selective, and even narrow depending on the type of social media pages that they choose to follow.
Moreover, there are increasing numbers of unauthorized, misleading, or satirical news sites which publish dubious information and even leverage on public outrage to attract readership for the purpose of generating profits. Many of these distorted news stories are shared on social media sites with eye-catching titles. Some bogus news stories are difficult to identify as they might not be completely fallacious but are instead distortions of true events. As a result, misinterpretations of these events could arise when one reads these news stories without careful verification and evaluation of their sources.
While the digital age has improved our access to knowledge and resources, the resulting information overload can become a double-edge sword when it comes to our making informed choices and decisions. It’s been reported that 82 percent of middle-schoolers are not able to distinguish between real and fake news. The school education system today has not caught up with the pace of internet development, and students are not equipped with the ability to spot fake news or discern the credibility of news sites. In 2016, fake news tended to outperform real news and this led to unexpected outcomes. Business Insider reported that “according to data from a Facebook-monitoring tool, the top 20 fake news stories collectively got more engagements — shares, likes, comments — than the top 20 factually accurate news stories shared by mainstream news outlets.” Some even said this phenomenon had swung the 2016 US election result as several of the biggest fake news stories published before the election included Pope Francis endorsing Donald Trump for president, WikiLeaks confirming Hillary Clinton had sold weapons to ISIS, Donald Trump had sent his private plane to transport 200 stranded marines, etc.
Companies should develop interactive, educational, and technological platforms which are able to disseminate correct information that will shape the worldview of the younger generation.
In times of digitalization, an internet user can have multiple online identities. This complicates the whole picture as it effectively blurs the line between the roles of reader and writer or content contributor. When one shares, comments, or reviews an article, it all contributes to the construction of readers’ understanding of the topic. Sometimes, comments and reviews of a shared article can garner more attention and influence than the original piece. Social media, with its informational social environment, thus exposes users to diverse opinions in a participatory manner and has the power to shape individuals’ perceptions.
This scenario is also tied to how social media platforms such as Facebook, Weibo, YouTube, and Instagram function. Today, social media platforms are more than engagement platforms but are also search engines for hot topics. Often, the more a topic is being discussed on a platform, the more attention it will get as the most popular topic will be listed at the top of users’ social media feeds. Rory Cellan-Jones thus argues that “social media sites have become the most powerful force in global news potentially offering publishers access to vast audiences but leaving them dependent on the whims of its algorithms.”
While Google and Facebook have been “taking steps to curb the number of false news articles propagated across their sites” by adding fact-checking options for readers, “tweaking the platform’s algorithm and provide more restrictions on advertising,” experts remain skeptical about the effectiveness of these moves. In view of how information and data are shared, discussed, and deliberated on social media platforms, these companies should transcend their conventional roles and bear the social responsibility of developing interactive, educational, and technological platforms which are able to disseminate correct information that will shape the worldview of the younger generation.
Among all internet tools, social media is one of the most powerful platforms that shape our perceptions in terms of how we perceive ourselves, others, and the world. With increasing internet penetration, what seems to be a virtual world to the older generation is in fact indispensable to the younger generations. The online lifestyle that is more experiential, engaging, and interactive than ever before has become a force for change in the global flows of the digital age. While the majority of users have subscribed to the social media mantra, smart users however should not be wholly fooled by what they read and see online.