Social Media & Our News Diet

Article by Anugraha Babuji

Photo by Matthew Seet

Technology was to be the slave and we the master but the exact opposite is apparent in the rapid and rather alarming evolution of our age-old habits and routines to adapt to the technological advances. For instance – think about the last time you actually sat down to read a physical copy of a newspaper or saw anyone else doing it for that matter. For most, the answer is awhile ago. So how then did you find out about the latest addition to the royal family,  the devastating Nepal earthquake that has claimed the lives of over 7800 and ruined many more, or even David Cameron’s re-election and the Tories’ 331 seat return to government? If you’re like most people, the answer might be posts on Facebook or Twitter.

Social media, in addition to revolutionizing our social interactions, have changed the way we consume news. When Facebook for instance was first launched, it was merely a means for us to keep in touch and stay updated on our friends’ lives even if they were situated on the other side of the world. Now, eleven years old, Facebook has also transformed into the primary means by which we become aware of important current events and news.

Sitting down and reading through an entire newspaper or going through all the updates of a single news distributor’s online site are now details of a bygone era. With the increased centralization of our lives on social media has come the centralization of news as well. Thus today, one begins with Facebook or Twitter for news and thus commences an article-by-article basis of discovering news from various sources as opposed to from a single one. News distributors like the New York Times and Buzzfeed have picked up on this trend and have recently planned to publish their work directly on Facebook – something which has been both beneficial and detrimental to these organizations.

Because an increasing number of people look to Facebook for both personal and public updates, news organizations and distributors have been able to maximize views by publishing their works directly on Facebook through which people then access their sites. On the flipside, the cost of maximizing views has been that social media sites such as Facebook increasingly determine the agenda of what news organizations cover and how it is presented, while still reaping greater financial benefits. This power arises from Facebook’s use of algorithms to prioritize certain types of posts over others, such as videos over text, thus pressuring news organizations to package their news in video form in order to stay in the game. The New York Times now retrieves short snippets of their media coverage and publishes it on Facebook so that people interested in viewing the rest of the video can continue onto their site to do so.

The movement of social media activity to smartphones has presented another challenge to news organizations. They face even greater pressure to cover more sensational material and package news into bite-sized chunks to keep up with our technologically induced shortening attention spans. While sensational and bite-sized news isn’t necessarily a bad thing, we do run the risk of shutting out discussion of more worthwhile and important issues, such as discussion of police brutality in the US for that of whether Charlotte really is the best name for the royal baby. With the increased emphasis on video-based content, we also run the risk of losing the written word, rendering it an artefact.

For all that social media such as Facebook and Twitter have revolutionized and greatly enhanced our ability to keep in touch, our increased dependence on them has also potentially unpleasant ramifications on our news intake. Hence, it is important to be wary that we are entering an age wherein technology gets to pull the strings.