Social media is a great outlet to connect with others and access a wide range of perspectives from different people. However, issues like the spread of false information and increased polarization on social media are problems we’re all too familiar with.
Some studies show that social media users are more likely to believe fake news. Considering that individuals between 18 and 29 increasingly rely on social media for news compared to other age groups, it’s important we understand how to address these problems.
One solution is improving our media literacy.
Being aware of how social media companies use their algorithms to spread information can help us recognize the steps we need to take to counteract it.
Kristy Roschke is the managing director of the News Co/Lab at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication and teaches courses at ASU on digital media literacy. Roschke said it’s important to be aware of how and when we use social media because social media companies can influence the information we see on our feeds and it is not always presented chronologically.
For instance, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube are all engineered with algorithms that promote content with high engagement. The platforms seize upon what content garners the most reactions and promote more of it. With these algorithms, it isn’t hard to see how rumors and evocative information can quickly spread.
Having this awareness is important. “The more we understand about how we are seeing the information we need,” Roschke said, “the more we can assert ourselves to find different types of information.”
Beyond recognizing how misinformation spreads, we should acknowledge how social media can fuel polarization. It is easy to find ourselves in epistemic bubbles where opposing beliefs are shut out or echo chambers where opposing information is invalidated.
Roschke mentioned that people naturally align with groups they identify with, and connecting with others is a positive aspect of social media.
“The flip side of that, of course, is that we are self-selecting all the information that we see such that we're only seeing that reinforce existing beliefs and we're not seeing other opinions and other perspectives on an issue — that's where you can kind of get stuck in an echo chamber of your own making,” Roschke said.
Social media algorithms can reinforce echo chambers or epistemic bubbles. Roschke mentioned that when these algorithms know information about you, like your political affiliation, they will promote more of that content. For instance, she cited Youtube as an example and said that to maintain users' attention, “researchers have found they'll serve up even more extreme versions of that content.”
“So the danger there is that you find yourself only seeing the same types of information and the same sources, which is not really giving you a broader view of the world, and it makes it so that it's harder for us to empathize with people whose views are different from ours,” she said.
Once we consider how social media can often be a hub of misinformation and easily be a place where polarization — and sometimes extremism — is reinforced, we can acknowledge different solutions. There is an ongoing discussion about different ways we should hold media companies accountable, and this is important. We should also consider actions we can take to increase our awareness and avoid the present issues we experience with social media.
Roschke recommends people obtain their news from credible sources. She typically encourages her students to “take an audit of the people and organizations and the types of information that they follow on social media and if those entities are less credible, then it's probably time to do a ‘spring cleaning.’”
Another recommendation Roschke provides is that when we encounter information online that elicits an emotional response and if we are unsure if it is true or not, verifying information can be as simple as a quick Google search.
For instance, Roschke said if you come across an article on the riots at the U.S. Capitol and see some information that makes you think "I haven't heard this particular part of the story, it might seem sort of suspicious to me," you can Google the quote, headline or piece of information and see if it is being covered by other outlets.
"It'll take 10 or 15 seconds for you to say ‘Oh, wow, I guess that is part of this story’ — because not only is my local newspaper covering it, but it's also covered by CNN or the Times or AP — so it doesn't take a really long time to verify things in that way.”
Roschke emphasized that since it can be impractical to do this for every piece of information one comes across, when topics are important to us or evoke emotions, "that's where you want to stop for a second, double check it — certainly before you share it with anyone." Having restraint is a good practice to stop the spread of false information of our own doing.
Another important point Roschke makes is that media literacy is not a set of skills you learn to suddenly become media literate — it is ongoing. “It's really about practicing these healthy ways of using media — as I’ve just described — and you have to do them all the time throughout your life because the way that media is created and is distributed is going to change many times over during our lifetime."
Social media is an important mode to obtain and share information, and when used properly, it is a great way to access a variety of viewpoints and narratives that may not be covered by mainstream media outlets. It can help give a platform to people who want to exercise their freedom of speech and participate in important dialogue. Also, many who don’t have enough time to read entire news articles every day may rely on social media because it can be an easier way to digest information on current events. Using social media isn’t the inherent problem — it’s the spread of false information.
What’s important is having media literacy skills to discern fact from fiction online, become aware of how algorithms promote specific content, and recognize the importance of relying on reputable sources.
Editor’s note: The opinions presented in this column are the author’s and do not imply any endorsement from The State Press or its editors. Kristy Roschke also serves on the student media advisory board that oversees The State Press.
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