Gone are the days when people had to turn on the television or tune into a radio program to get the scoop on current events. In fact, fewer people than ever are doing it. In recent years, the number of people who cite the Internet as their main source for news has been rising, as has the traffic acquired by many news sources through social media channels, such as Twitter and Facebook.
We like social media because it's fast, responsive, accessible and interactive. In social media, users get more than just the news; they get rapid feedback on its impact from their peers. Unfortunately, these are the very same qualities that can make social media so problematic as a news provider.
On April 15, 2013, during the Boston Marathon, two bombs went off, killing and injuring civilians and leaving a lot of confusion. What had happened? Who was responsible? It was one of those days when people all around the world turned to the news to fill them in minute by minute.
During the manhunt for the Boston Marathon bombing suspects the city was shut down, the world was captivated and we saw the full effect of social media’s growing influence. Millions of users (myself included) logged onto Facebook and Twitter to express their frustration, their sadness, their hope that there wouldn't be more victims. As evening approached, and news broke that the remaining suspect was in custody, something interesting happened. The Boston Police Department announced via Twitter that the manhunt had come to an end.
These solemn statements traveled quickly, inspiring thousands to celebrate in the streets of Boston. What was possibly the highest profile manhunt in recent U.S. history had come to a close, and social media seemed to capture this moment and what it meant in a way that no news outlet could. Naturally, this unique event sparked many discussions about the evolving role of social media. Could it be that news outlets would be made obsolete by Twitter and Facebook? More importantly, would the power bestowed upon news outlets be taken back? Would future news come from us, the people?
Not So Fast …
Of course, it was only a few days later that the world saw one of the pitfalls of this kind of information source, when the Twitter feed for the Associated Press was hacked, releasing a tweet that shook the world. The tweet claimed that the White House had been attacked and that President Obama was injured. While the story was a complete fabrication, it didn’t stop the world from reacting to it as truth. Stock markets crashed almost immediately, and a sense of panic began growing among those who feared this news to be true. (Learn more about this and other hacks in The Top 4 Most Devastating Twitter Feed Hacks.)
It all happened – and was over – in a few minutes. But it was in this moment that we began to see just how inaccurate and potentially dangerous this sort of news transformation could be. It also showed that while social media can deliver instant news, its lightning speed is also problematic when that "news" is inaccurate or, as in this case, a complete scam. In the few brief minutes before the whole thing was debunked, there were more than 4,000 retweets.
Two Sides to Every Story
Having seen social media’s power to inform, and mislead, the persistent question remains: Can social media be a valuable news source?
If you’re an advocate of social media’s growing influence, you might argue that for the most part, when it comes to communication, it has been a force for good. Twitter, for example, has become a valuable tool that has connected the world in unprecedented ways. And many would argue that it's still the best alternative to corporate-backed news outlets with inherent special interests. By democratizing the news, the bias that has dogged popular media outlets disappears. We can now count on getting information directly from the source. And that seems like a good thing. But it isn't perfect, and there are some real risks.
For one, social media makes it harder to find the source and know who to trust. After all, if the information came from your friend's feed or wall, that gives it some credibility. When a public Facebook page posted Boston Police scanner conversations that suggested that a missing undergraduate from Brown University might be responsible for the Boston Marathon bombings, it spread across Facebook to more than 319,000 people. The problem was, it hadn't been verified – and it wasn't true.
"If speed is the currency of the modern information era," Molly Wood, a writer for CNET wrote on April 19, "misinformation is the increasingly high cost."
Social media has proved that it can increase awareness, improve understanding and give regular people a bigger voice. Of course, that technology isn't all good all the time. Nothing is. What this probably means is that the best we can all do is become a little more cynical about our news sources, and a little more cautious about what we choose to believe. But then come to think of it, that isn't such a bad thing anyway.