The Problem with Social Media

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Taking a page from the newest eCelebs in a shameless attempt to get my 15-minutes of fame, I hereby announce my resignation from Louder Than Words via the Communicate Good blog! I kid, of course – I really do love my job. Unfortunately, the same can’t be echoed by America’s two heroes-of-the-moment, Steven Slater and Dry Erase Board Jenny; both of whom famously quit their respective jobs in grandiose fashion.  One, a JetBlue steward, who, after telling-off an unruly passenger upon landing at JFK airport, made quite the impressive exit by grabbing a beer and taking a ride down the plane’s emergency inflatable exit slide.  The other, fed up after two years of mistreatment, emailed a series of photographs to the entire staff of her firm announcing her resignation and exposing her boss’s indiscretions via dry erase board messages.  These stories spread like wildfire throughout Facebook and Twitter early last week to the point where it was picked up by major news outlets like the Huffington Post, among others.  The problem? One of these was a hoax.  Turns out Dry Erase Board Jenny is actually Elyse Porterfield, who was hired by the creators in an attempt to create a viral “news” story.

Therein lies a big problem with social media – the spread of misinformation and the impulse of the media to report it.  Before the internet, people were lucky to catch a breaking news story only if they happened to be watching TV or listening to a radio.  But by its very nature, social media promotes the sharing of information, greatly reducing the time between an event happening and people knowing about it.  For instance, I, along with many others, first learned of the death of Michael Jackson through Facebook, before any major news outlets had a chance to upload the content to their websites.  However, as details emerged on Facebook and Twitter from alleged eye-witnesses, the lines between fact and fiction were blurred as many of them were deemed false.

Like a bad game of Telephone, social media makes it easy to add inaccuracies or even inject your own spin to a given story just to be mischievous.  Once it begins circulating, there’s no stopping it.  At the end of it all, it’s never the same message as the one that was started and there’s no telling which version you’re actually reading.  Facts surrounding legitimate news stories are often lifted directly from Twitter.  Last year, amidst political clashes resulting from a controversial Iranian election, major news outlets reported events as they popped up on Twitter due to an Iranian-imposed media embargo.  Admittedly, this was one of the only ways to access this information, but reporting un-verifiable statements as fact is not how professional journalism should work.

Given the capabilities of today’s technology, it’s also just as easy to create your own story and hope it gains traction from unsuspecting followers.  Not that news outlets have been immune to hoaxes in the past (Orson Welles’ 1938 broadcast War of the Worlds and Geraldo Rivera’s unveiling of Al Capone’s vault come to mind), but the frequency at which they are being reported as fact is steadily increasing.  The more sensational, the better – like Fox News’ reporting of Donald Trump leaving a $10,000 tip on an $82 bill.  While adding a line like “this story has been determined to be a hoax” may seem like a good band-aid, the news had already spread.

Publishers are engaged in a constant struggle for readership as they race to see who will break a story first.  Technology has sent public consumption into overdrive and shortened attention spans.  News that broke 6 hours ago is already old and people are ready to move on to the next big thing.  To satisfy our needs, the media is quick to report on anything they can get their hands on.  For some, this results in research and fact-checking taking a backseat to the belief that if a story goes viral, it has to be true.

The general public already has a shaky relationship with the mainstream media.  While it may seem funny at the outset, as these false news stories continue to be reported on with quicker turnaround, it will only further serve to devalue the media’s credibility.  But it’s not entirely the media’s fault.  As the public increasingly demands more from their media sources, we’ll keep ending up with stories like Dry Erase Board Jenny’s.  There many amazing benefits for the use of social media as a communication tool, but the way it has completely transformed the way we consume our news is clear.  Whether or not that’s a good thing is still to be determined.