Sometimes being in college can mean living in a bubble. With so many assignments, extra curricular activities and internship hunting (oh…and parties), I often times realize that I have no idea what is going on in the world. Most of the time, I get my news based off of what I see on social media sites. If it interests me, maybe I’ll look into it. Maybe. And I am not the only one. When was the last time you picked up a newspaper? (yes, they still exist)
According to the University of Florida, almost 65% of Americans get their news online. Check out this info graphic that they released in 2012:
Social media traffic to news sites has increased 57% since 2009. That means more and more people, like me, are relying on social media postings to stay informed. It is convenient and easy, but is it truly keeping us informed with reliable information?
According to a recent article by MIT News, social media posts grow shorter as volume of posts increases. This means in times of high traffic, like during breaking news stories, people are writing less and less. During a study done by MIT’s Senseable City Lab, researchers found that on Twitter, in times of low activity, tweets averaged 70 to 120 characters. However, during times of high activity, this average dropped down to 25 characters. They found similar patterns across other social media sites and this makes me wonder: how can we be informed in just 25 characters? Does that truly give justice to these huge news stories? We can’t assume that people are doing the research themselves. Just because they know something is going on in the world doesn’t mean they KNOW anything about it.
Another problem that faces news and social media is accuracy. Especially online where rumors can spread so quickly, how do we know if a headline is true or false? Sometimes it can be hard to tell (Justin Beiber deported! No, he’s still here). USA Today recently interviewed Kalina Bontcheva, lead researcher for Pheme, a new text-mining technology project developed to track how false rumors spread online. Over time, Pheme is hoped to develop into an online application where users can receive a confidence rating on specific statements and stories, as to avoid false information. Funded by the European Union and research done by five universities and private companies, this project started “to assist governments and agencies in times of emergency to disseminate accurate information, while debunking rumors that could panic the public, according to the developers,” which seems like a generally good idea.
In an age where we constantly need verification of accuracy, we are leaning towards mass data collection to make this project possible.
“People should be skeptical. It isn’t the role of government to decide what is the truth,” stated Dave Maass, spokesman for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a not-for-profit digital rights group. Maass brings up an extremely good point. Do we want our governments to be the bearer of truth? In the search for exact news, what are we giving up if it is up to government to decide what is exact; they often seem to have a different interpretation of truth. Furthermore, a project like this could lead to invasive data collection, just to prove what is true and was is not online. If social media becomes the sole source of news for more and more, people will have to start relying on projects like Pheme to gauge the quality of their news. Is it worth it?
I’m not so sure.
My advice? Social media is great, but when it comes to the news, try to find a supplemental source, even if it takes a little more time. You’ll probably feel a lot smarter.