Social media are mixed blessings for journalists

By | February 2, 2022
New media on iPhone in hand

It is hard to imagine life without social media – or to remember the world before.

Whether you love them or hate them, use or avoid them, social media have been enormously influential, almost as powerful as the internet itself.

That is partly because even those people not directly linked, liked, shared or tweeted on social media find themselves inescapably swimming in the social media soup created by everyone else.

And while pre-digital professional journalists may bemoan their impact, social media have become part and parcel of their working lives, to both good and bad effect.

Where, for example, would American journalists have scooped out the vast amount of raw materials flooding from Donald Trump’s 25,000 Tweets during his four years in the White House, before he was finally banned?

Trump didn’t invent social media or even normalise their exploitation. After all, his predecessor Barack Obama credits part of his success back in 2008 with connecting to younger voters via social media.

Looking back over the past two decades, so many newsworthy events were brought to our attention through the use by journalists of social media.

How otherwise would reporters have brought real-time news about the Arab Spring, the Umbrella Revolution in Honk Kong, #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, Greta Thunberg and the Schools Strike for Climate movement, even vaccination issues during COVID-19. All these and tens of thousands more news stories large and small have, in some way, been generated or influenced by social media.

Without social media journalists would not have known about so many events or been able to gather content for their reports. Neither would digital news outlets have been able to reach out to their readers, viewers or listeners in increasing numbers, drawing their audiences together around a 21st Century online water cooler.

But new media have not all been blessings for journalists. For every snippet, lead or tip-off from social media there have been instances of fake news, misinformation and downright lies spread through the soup, from Trump’s claims about a “stolen election” to weird remedies and phoney advice about COVID, circulated in Tweets, posts or Facebook feeds.

The News Manual has just launched a new chapter on new media and social media for journalists. The following excerpt addresses many of the challenges they pose for journalists – the good, the bad and the downright dreadful:

Sharing: Social media apps such as Facebook and Twitter were originally promoted as ways of sharing information between individuals and groups. This sharing has had all sorts of benefits in bringing people together, bridging differences, accumulating knowledge, sharing experiences, entertaining us and a host more. These have come with downsides, of course, in reducing the needs for face-to-face interactions, allowing people to say and do bad things while hiding their identities, dragging some people into the social media melee against their will and more. In general, though, facilitating knowledge sharing has been one of the greatest benefits of social media, including for journalists.

Decentralisation: Though most social media platforms have physical company headquarters, the actual use of the platforms is decentralised. People do not need to go to a central point – even virtually – to make full use of the apps. There is a sense of freedom in this and also a sense of intimacy in feeling that you are communicating with your friends, family or people with the same interests – even if it’s only sharing a video on TikTok. Having no centre to be targeted has also helped users survive crackdowns by authorities. In 2021, part of the success of the Taliban in overrunning Afghanistan in a matter of weeks was attributed to their use of social media apps to communicate, intimidate and propagandise, even though as an organisation they were officially banned from Facebook and Twitter. Analysis in The Guardian pointed out “there was no radio station to bomb, no signal to jam, no publicist to arrest”.

Accessibility: Most people with access to the internet can use social media platforms, Many of them are free to use, even for people on low incomes, and unlike print newspapers or broadcast television you don’t need to go to a special place to access them – they can be anywhere you can get an internet signal to your device. Of course, some authoritarian governments try various ways to limit their citizens accessing some social media, especially those that contain content critical of the government. Observers point out, however, that in the pre-digital era governments were able to prevent newspapers entering their nations and block radio and television signals from penetrating far into their country.

Everywhere: Social media are seemingly everywhere, in every corner of the world. In the section “Less regulated” below, we discuss how not all social media platforms are available in all countries, but with few exceptions even countries where free-speech platforms are banned, governments allow their own indigenous platforms to operate, albeit highly censored. China, for example, blocks Facebook and Twitter but has its own such as WeChat 微信 and Sina Weibo 新浪微博. By July 2021 it was estimated there are about 4.4 billion regular users of social media around the world. Wherever the internet is available and people have smart devices or computers, they can access some social media, whether they want it or not.

Simple to use: Social media apps have been designed so they are simple to use by all ages and levels of education. Once you have downloaded the app, you can begin using it, though most require users to log in and provide some information for verification. Controls within apps are usually simple, intuitive and user-friendly, and although some have several levels of increasing complexity, most users quickly find a level of operability that suits them and their uses.

Cheap/free: Most social media platforms do not charge for ordinary use. Some might charge businesses who want to advertise on the platform or sell their products. Some also offer what they call “premium services” whereby users pay a subscription to access special features such as a better quality of goods, services or people to network with. Many premium subscriptions are also offered ad-free for users who want to avoid annoying advertising which slows down their navigation of the platform’s content.

One of the major disagreements between online mass media and social media platforms is about who pays for content. For example, many platforms allow users to post or share news stories, photos and videos that people would otherwise have to pay to access on the news organisations’ own websites or mobile apps. News media say this is effectively the platforms “selling” content which is not theirs, thus avoiding the costs of producing the news content themselves. The platforms argue they are just the carriers and, besides, they act as a free shop window to the media organisations, even providing links to the original content for users to click on to see for themselves.

Hidden costs: Although most social media platforms do not charge their users fees to post and download content, there are hidden costs because the platforms are, after all, commercial businesses. Facebook alone made US$85 billion revenue in 2020, mainly from the sale of advertising on the pages you use. Advertising is not a direct charge on users (apart from on the advertisers themselves) but it ultimately comes from the pockets of users as additional expenses that must be recovered from the sellers in the form of the price of their goods or services. In so-called “free market economies”, although competition in theory forces down prices, in reality end-consumers ultimately pay for everything.

As a sideline, platforms like Facebook harvest the value of the information they hold on each user (such as age, gender, nationality, likes, shares and previous spending habits) and they turn that into dollars by creating algorithms they can then promote to advertisers wanting to target similar people. The more information each person puts into their profile and the more often they click on content, the more valuable they are to the platform and its advertisers.

Some platforms also sell information they gather on their users to other people, though in some jurisdictions around the world they are required to inform the individual when they do this and then allow them to opt out of letting the company use it.

Less regulated: As mentioned earlier, around the world social media are typically less regulated than traditional media and in most free-speech countries there are fewer bodies established to oversee social media in general. Attempts to establish tighter regulation of social media have often met with resistance from the platform owners themselves. For example, in February 2021 Facebook temporarily blocked news to Australians in a dispute over a proposed Australian law that would force it and Google to pay news publishers for content. Although the ban was lifted, tensions remain in Australia and many countries between social media platform owners and governments.

Some authoritarian governments have simply imposed their own laws on social media. China, for example, has blocked Twitter, Google and WhatsApp, replacing them with Chinese providers such as Weibo, Baidu and WeChat, which the government strictly control and censor. Governments also block social media in Iran, Syria, and North Korea, where less than 1% of the population is estimated to have access to the internet anyway.

Most countries fall somewhere between on regulation, while social media companies claim that self-regulation means laws are not necessary.

  • Germany, for example, imposed a NetzDG Network Enforcement Act law in 2018, forcing larger social media companies to set up procedures to review complaints about content they host, remove anything that is clearly illegal within 24 hours and publish updates every six months about how they are performing. Companies can be fined for non-compliance.
  • The European Union is considering clamping down on terror videos and has introduced the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) which sets rules on how companies, including social media platforms, store and use people’s data.
  • Australia passed the Sharing of Abhorrent Violent Material Act in 2019, with criminal penalties for social media companies and their executives. They also have an eSafety Commissioner with power to demand that social media companies take down harassing or abusive posts and so-called revenge porn.[i]
  • In the United States, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is responsible for implementing and enforcing America’s communications law and regulations in legacy communications and mass media, but by the end of 2021 the issue of regulating social media had not been finalised. The waters are muddied by the First Amendment of the US Constitution, which stops the government from limiting a person’s freedom of expression but allows private companies to do just that, hence the inclination to self-regulation.
  • In Britain, the Office of Communications (Ofcom) regulates communications industries including the TV and radio sectors, fixed line telecoms, mobiles, postal services and the radio spectrum. It works with the government’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport and in February 2020, the department proposed that Ofcom should be empowered to intervene in the internet and social media to protect Britons from online harm, especially children and other vulnerable people. The proposed Online Harms Act would use a mixture of self-regulation and government intervention in the case of breaches.

Egalitarian: In general, almost anyone who wants to post content on social media platforms can do so. As mentioned earlier, it is accessible to almost anyone to both visit and to post. This means there are generally no gatekeepers judging the talent of content creators or the quality of their work. Success is measured mainly by the number of people who follow posts and their creators. Given how many people use social media globally (it is estimated that in 2021 there were 4.4 billion regular users around the world), it is quite common for popular creators to get millions of followers and for posts to get tens of millions of likes. By June 2021 a photo of an egg had clocked a record 55 million likes on Instagram, admittedly as part of an attempt to set the record. There was nothing distinctive about the photo or the post creators, demonstrating how fickle and powerful success can be on social media (in terms of likes and shares) and how little creativity or content quality matter in many social media.

Impermanent: Social media interactions can be seen as less permanent than other forms of communications. Newspapers and magazines, for example, have physical existence and can be kept and accessed months and years after they were published. Radio and television were originally seen as less permanent than print media, even though over the years storage and accessibility have been improved. Websites are usually quite static and even though their content might be changed – new information added, articles updated – websites are usually stored, archived and available for a long time. Social media content, on the other hand, is seen as less permanent, more transient and ever-changing. Typically, social media content appears in “streams”, with the most recent post at the top pushing older posts further and further down. Users deal with this by reading posts and adding material more frequently, often several times a day on popular apps. They become less concerned about spending time getting their posts correct as they are not seen as permanent records. The important thing is to keep interactions turning over at a fast pace. This makes finding old information difficult in social media streams but most users are no bothered by this, any more than they would be bothered to make a tape recording of a telephone call or video a chat with a friend over a café table.

Some social media platforms were built to exploit this impermanence and have taking it to extremes. Users of apps like Snapchat – mainly younger people – actually like the fact that their messages disappear after a short time. This can relieve them of the fear of being embarrassed, mocked or blamed for their “snaps”. And this is why Snapchat has been used extensively for “sexting”[ii] and snapping sexualised images – the evidence disappears before the originator can be brought to account. The brief life and superficiality of Snaps have worked against the platform, which is now one of the lesser social media apps around the world.

For journalists, Snapchat might be seen as a useful tool to cover their tracks while researching a story, though there are ways of keeping copies of snaps that can be used against them.

Easily manipulated: Impermanence is a double-edged sword. As a positive, many digital platforms are flexible and easy to adapt, responsive to changing circumstances. There is no cumbersome mechanism or process needed to change to meet new needs. Indeed, many platforms can autonomously change without human intervention using algorithms.[iii] Once human programmers have set up algorithms for an app to do something, that algorithm proceeds to implement the process faster and less subjectively than a human. Algorithms, however, are prone to making errors that a human might detect. During a controversial period for Facebook in late-2021 it was discovered that many algorithms led to unintended, unfortunate outcomes that affected vulnerable users – such as children and young people – or produced misleading results. For example, researchers discovered that search results could be affected by simple emojis, small graphic symbols often used as a short form to express a simple emotion or idea. As reported in The Washington Post, they found Facebook’s ranking algorithm treated emoji reactions (which are quick, superficial responses) as five times more valuable than “likes”, which usually require a slightly higher level of thought. It suited Facebook’s business model to keep its users more engaged at a superficial, unconsidered level.

While the media have been accused of manipulating consumers for hundreds of years, digital media make manipulation quicker and easier. One of the simplest tools to fool readers is clickbait, links embedded in an attractive text or an image that promises to take readers to more information on the topic but which actually leads to something else, usually unrelated, such as an advertisement or a sponsored article. Even established media companies sometimes use clickbait on their websites to increase internet traffic and profitability. For example, mainstream media such as NewsCorp may post more than 70 clickbait links (labelled “We recommend …”) at the foot of a single online article, some linking to further content but many just to advertising.

Poor editorial controls: For journalists, one of the main differences from legacy mass media (either pre-digital or online) is social media’s lack of editorial control over content quality. This includes:

  • technical quality of text, audio and vision,
  • quality of language used (spelling, grammar, fluency etc),
  • production standards including editing and processing,
  • journalistic practices of accuracy, fairness and balance of news,
  • semantics and truth, for example distinguishing facts from opinions,
  • compliance with communications laws such as defamation and copyright.

Almost the only time there is evidence of professional standards is in posts by media organisations themselves and – to some extent – other professional bodies. Otherwise, the features that make social media so accessible and egalitarian mean most posts by ordinary people are little more than their normal interactions – just online instead of face-to-face. For many people, spelling, grammar (or lack of it), structure, balance, fairness, the importance of facts and evidence are not seen as important as they are to journalists. Most social media posts have rough honesty that make them attractive but also unreliable.

A story published or broadcast by professional media will usually have passed through several pairs of hands before being printed or distributed to readers, viewers or listeners. Each person in the chain will have chance to spot and correct errors, fill in omissions and generally improve the quality of the piece. Photo and sound technicians and video editors will be able to improve visual and audio quality. Senior editorial managers and company lawyers may be asked to give their opinions about what can and cannot be used. The finished story will be the best this group of professionals can make it. Compare this to one person posting some information on their own social media account without any checks on quality, truth, taste or accuracy.

Journalists posting on social media must recognise and build in correctives for this weakness (such as seeking advice before posting). Journalists using social media for research must take steps to check the reliability of what they see. [See Fake news & trust chains for more information.]

Poor quality control: Critics of social media say there is little quality control on most  platforms, not just editorially but over content more generally. The social media platform owners argue that quality is often a matter of personal taste and their job is not to act as arbiters of taste. They use principles such as the US First Amendment protecting freedom of expression to support their case and they claim that they apply self-regulation more often than people might think. For example, YouTube releases a transparency report, which gives data on its removals of inappropriate content. The video-sharing site owned by Google said that 8.8m videos were taken down between July and September 2019, with 93% of them automatically removed by machines, and two thirds of those clips not receiving a single view.

It also removed 3.3 million channels and 517 million comments.

Globally, YouTube employs 10,000 people in monitoring and removing content, as well as policy development. Facebook, which owns Instagram, told BBC Reality Check it has more than 35,000 people around the world working on safety and security, and it also releases statistics on its content removals. Between July and September 2019 Facebook took action on 30.3 million pieces of content, of which it found 98.4% before any users flagged it.

Quality control – Case Study

Social media’s general lack of quality controls – including agreed editorial standards – and the ambiguity over regulation affect not only ordinary users but create weaknesses that extend to more prominent users. In a celebrated recent case, the problem reached all the way to the President of the United States.

For many years before and during his presidency, Donald Trump had been a prolific, self-indulgent user of social media. On Twitter alone, from opening his account in 2009 he tweeted 57,000 times, including more than 25,000 times as President. To Trump, social media were simply tools for his own ambition, to be exploited just as he manipulated his followers. According to records by the Washington Post, Trump made 30,573 false or misleading claims during his four years in the White House. The bulk of them were in his social media posts – especially on Twitter – where he acted as if unconstrained either morally or practically. While stories later emerged of attempts by his family and staff to moderate his wilder falsehoods, almost no-one stood in his way when he wanted to let fly with Tweets and Facebook posts.

Towards the end of his presidency, various social media platforms eventually suspended, blocked or banned Trump, either partially or wholly. For example, in January 2021 Twitter permanently suspended his @realDonaldTrump handle, followed by the official account of his campaign (@TeamTrump). Trump’s allies who posted on his behalf also had their accounts suspended. According to research analytics firm Zignal Labs, these measures led to a 73% decline in the spread of election-related misinformation during the first week following the bans.

The platforms’ blocking of Trump may have been an example of self-regulation in action, but observers say it was forced upon the platform owners by government threats of stronger social media laws – so it was more a case of self-preservation.

In The News Manual chapter on New media & social media, we look at new media and social media from two main perspectives – as tools for journalists to use and as ways of distributing their work. We look first at new media then dig deeper into the use of social media by journalists. We finish with an overview of ethics and laws affecting journalists using new and social media.The chapter does not give detailed instructions on the use of specific new media platforms or social media apps such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram etc. You can get these from the platforms and apps themselves, user support, forums and online instruction sites. Later in the chapter we provide links to websites and other services providing up-to-date information on new media resources useful to journalists. We look at new media and social media for media professionals, students and citizen journalists within the overall approach of The News Manual. New media and social media have developed numerous terms and word definitions that did not exist in pre-digital journalism. You will find many of these in The News Manual Glossary. Finally, while new media and social media seem relatively new and recent developments for journalists, they are really just extensions of the core principles and practices of modern journalism that have existed for well over 100 year and that we cover throughout the rest of The News Manual.


[i] Revenge porn is the distribution of sexually explicit images or videos of individuals without their consent.

[ii] Sexting is sending sexual messages, images or videos through technology such as a phone, app, email or webcam. It can be a problem if the recipient does not wish to receive them.

[iii]  Algorithms In media are computer programs that use the automated analysis of statistics obtained from internet usage to solve problems, including choosing how, what and when information is delivered to people en masse and individually.

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