What do the death of Osama bin Laden, the 2009 plane crash into the Hudson River, and the birth of Prince George of Cambridge all have in common? It sounds like the start of a bad riddle, but the answer signals a major shift in the way Americans consume media. All of these stories were some of the most discussed from the past decade and were first reported on social media.
In 2017, 67% of Americans said they consumed most of their news from social media. That’s unsurprising, considering how connected we are in 2019. It seems almost everybody has a smartphone and has the ability to scroll through Facebook or Twitter to get news updates in real time.
What is it about social media that makes it so appealing, as opposed to traditional media?
Social media is convenient.
You don’t have to wait until the evening news to find out why police cars were speeding through your neighborhood. You can open your Twitter app and find out that officers were chasing a murder suspect and caught him nearby.
Social media is immediate.
We all know that news travels fast. With social media, it’s traveling faster than ever. Gone are the days of operating within a news organization’s print or broadcast deadline. Local news stations and newspapers are using social media to send out blips of information as they confirm it, instead of waiting to tell the public on the air.
Social media turns everyone into amateur journalists.
Ninety-five percent of Americans own a smartphone. All it takes to own a story is to snap a few photos and post them online, explaining what you see, when you see it. This can be extremely helpful in areas of the world where certain voices feel oppressed or marginalized.
That said, news breaking on social media has a few drawbacks:
A rush to “break a story” could lead to inaccurate details being spread.
Everyone wants to be the first to post breaking news, including seasoned journalists. In the immediate world of social media, wrong information can be sent out before all the facts are confirmed by journalists who want to be first.
Important facts can go missing.
As users turn to Twitter to post their version of a story, it gets difficult to tell which story is true and which story is false. People with no ties to news organizations other than frequent retweets don’t always have the connections with law enforcement or city officials needed to post accurate information.
Users can expose themselves exclusively to viewpoints they agree with.
Users can choose to only follow or interact with pages with viewpoints they already identify with, which can lead to them becoming less likely to accept other ideas.
There is no denying that social media is changing the news landscape in a way that traditional journalists did not expect. The first person to break the deadly Osama bin Laden raid was the terrorist’s neighbor, who tweeted about the loud noises he heard nearby.
The now-iconic first photo of US Airways Flight 1549 in the middle of New York’s Hudson River was first posted to TwitPic by a man on a ferry who saw the plane go down.
While the birth of a Royal baby is not as dramatic than a military raid or a plane crash, it was a story that, at one point, recorded more than 25,300 tweets per minute. The first place Prince George’s baby announcement appeared was on Kensington Palace’s Facebook page.
These examples have little in common, other than to show how news shared on social media can get the world buzzing. Social media can be a great tool to get the world talking about a common subject. The danger comes when those initial tweets or posts cause information to snowball out of control. After the bin Laden raid, dozens of conspiracy theories surfaced on social media that had many believing “facts” that weren’t true.
As technology continues to advance, social media platforms need to make sure they are adapting. They need to continuously work to figure out how to fight the spread of news that isn’t accurate. At the same time, news organizations need to continue building their social media presence to ensure that they are sharing legitimate information when news breaks.