Social Media: Changing the nature of our news

There was once a time in our nation’s history when breaking news was delivered door-to-door by a school-aged paperboy, pedaling his way across neighborhoods on a rusty bicycle. At the sound of his bell, papers were dropped onto doormats and it was there that barefooted men and women would step outside to receive the Sunday news.

This history has not been entirely lost in modern times, but the means by which people receive their news has changed dramatically with the development of the radio, television, the internet and, most recently, social media. Each of these platforms has made its own unique contributions to the ways information gets distributed and has altered the route the news must take to reach one’s doormat. Technological developments have simplified the process by which we receive our news and have consequentially exchanged paperboy bells for cellular ringtones and vibrations.

In a study conducted in 2016 by the Pew Research Center, an estimated 57 percent of adults often get their news by watching TV, 38 percent go online, 25 percent listen to the radio, while 20 percent read a printed newspaper. Of those who go online, nearly half of all age groups engage with the news on some social media platform. According to this study, it is no more likely for young adults (in this case, aged 18-29) to view the news on social media than it is for someone of another age.

With the frequency of using social media to obtain information on the rise among all age groups, it must be noted that these outlets are also being used to post and share such information. It can be hard to distinguish which stories are coming from viable news sources and which are written for mere entertainment.  What adds even further to this confusion is the rapid rate at which stories “go viral” and are shared with an inaccurate expectation of validity.

The New York Times details an instance where a Twitter user posted an image claiming “paid protesters” being bused to demonstrations to rally against Donald Trump. Within a short time, this post, which turned out to have no standing truth, was shared thousands of times across Twitter and Facebook and was even mentioned in a tweet by Trump himself. This example serves to show that misleading, or even purposefully untruthful stories can spread across the internet realm at top speed, further polarizing our thinking and masking our quest for truth.

What can be done then, to combat the spread of false stories on social media? On a personal level, we can fact-check articles online simply by performing a Google search before we click “share.” As people who wish to promote an honest and factual spread of information, we can avoid using alarmist language that encourages polarized thinking. It is such language that ignites a flame between readers of opposing views and discourages impartial fact-based articles from being shared.

Fake news doesn’t necessarily have to be political, either. I have personally seen numerous articles on Facebook with the fact-less content and poorly-edited grammar that hint that they are either entirely untrue or mildly falsified. Either way, these hints are too often ignored when the title of an article is striking enough to evoke clicks and shares.

One of the top shared fake news stories from 2016, which evoked readership from all ends of the political spectrum, was an article titled, “Cinnamon Roll Can Explodes Inside Man’s Butt During Shoplifting Incident” from empireherald.com. (https://www.cnbc.com/2016/12/30/read-all-about-it-the-biggest-fake-news-stories-of-2016.html) The story was shared nearly one million times across social media but was written without regard to factual reference or anatomy.

Perhaps our paperboys too could have delivered these sorts of stories to our doors, but could mild falsehoods and outright lies have spread this quickly if not for social media? Could tensions have boiled to temperatures high as they are in this current political climate if not for the alarming articles, both true and not, being shared by the millisecond across the internet? It is with this in mind that we must proceed with caution when confronted with information and ensure our shared posts are not tainted with dishonesty.


Katie Pelkey is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus.   She can be reached via email at katie.pelkey@uconn.edu.