By Tracey Dowdy
We live in an era when an increasingly large part of the population gets their news via social media. According to a 2014 study by Pew Research, 30 percent of adults look to Facebook as their source for news, while another 10 percent each look to Twitter or YouTube. These numbers are constantly evolving and it’s safe to say they spike during events such as the presidential debates.
As a teen I remember being bored senseless when the news came on, and though my parents would encourage me to pay attention to make me aware of current events, I really couldn’t wait until we could change the channel and watch pretty much anything else. Part of it was my age and lack of interest in anything that didn’t directly impact my life, and part of it was the delivery – a stern faced, stiff, older man with a clipped and formal delivery. There was a definite disconnect.
Today, as a result of the ubiquity of social media, that same information often comes to us from peers, celebrities, and other pop culture sources. Instead of a disconnect, there’s a feeling of immediacy that makes the Syrian refugee crisis in Europe or the bombing of a MSF hospital in Kunduz seem much closer to home.
Not only are younger people becoming greater consumers of news and current events through social media, they’re also becoming participants by posting their own photos or videos of those current events. Police used videos posted on Facebook to identify Stanley Cup rioters in Vancouver and when you consider the impact user generated content had on events like the Darren Wilson verdict or the Arab Spring, the influence of social media is more than obvious.
It’s no surprise that individuals who most closely follow news and current events are also the most engaged in political and social causes. Increased awareness is certainly a positive thing but there’s a danger that not all the information that goes viral is accurate. When Malaysian Airlines flight 370 went missing there were countless false reports and news updates shared via social media, including one stating the plane had landed safely in Nanning, China. I’ve lost track of the number of reports of Betty White’s passing away and I frequently see “R.I.P. Rue McClanahan,” who in reality died back in 2010. Even big name media outlets like CNN and Fox News sometimes get it wrong and, if nothing else, the Brian Williams debacle taught us to fact check and then fact check again.
It all comes down to critical thinking skills and reminding our kids to check their sources. In fact that’s good advice for all of us. I myself have been guilty of sharing inaccurate news, because I blindly trusted the source who initially shared it. It only takes a moment to fact check and make sure the information is correct but it can take a long time to un-do the damage from a false report. Sometimes the desire to be first overrides the need to be right and we as consumers are the ones who pay for that.
Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.