BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Amid the withering of newspaper revenues and the ascent of Facebook, it can be easy to lose sight of the fact that social media refers to tools for connecting with others and sharing information. These media aren’t inherently transformative. They’re tools with no fixed outcomes.
All media are embedded in cultural contexts that end up determining how and why they’re used. Each technology brings certain constraints and affordances, but ultimately it’s about us.
Social media can be used to get us closer to the truth and they can be used to distort. They can be used to enlighten. They can be used to stupefy. And, as we continue to witness, social media can be used to help topple oppressive regimes around the world just as they can suppress dissent.
So I could whip up some anecdotes providing evidence of verified news on social media sites just as easily as I could deliver doom-and-gloom anecdotes. Illustrative? Yes. Conclusive? Not so much.
The meteoric rise in social media use since the early 2000s has left journalistic debris in its wake. Distortions! Immediacy trumping accuracy! Cute cats everywhere! Shrunken newsrooms! Some of this change has been costly for communities and the newsrooms that cover them.
In the long run, however, we’re better off.
Here’s why. Social media facilitate more swapping and mingling of knowledge and ideas. In the history of media, every major new social medium has brought advances in knowledge and ideas.
The recent social media revolution is already fueling advances in journalism and better ideas about how reporters can engage and accurately inform citizens. Look at the Guardian’s interactive, data-driven stories or any of The New York Times’s socially oriented Beta620 projects. Attend a National Institute for Computer Assisted Reporting (NICAR) conference to witness the power of social news. All provide examples of how journalists are harnessing social media to tell great stories with precision.
Journalism’s practitioners and scholars are being pushed to define what they do and evolve the craft alongside other burgeoning forms of information consumption and production. This constitutes a sharpening of journalism, not a dumbing down.
And, social media are being used by more and more people around the world to report on themselves. Think of the risk-taking videographers who emerged during the recent unrest Syria, like “Syria Pioneer.” These brave citizens helped provide an accurate picture of life in Homs because of their desire to represent otherwise unreported events.
Still, when we share news on Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites, the content we pass along typically originates from major news organizations. Social media sites mostly offer a news agenda built by tried-and-true conventional news media.
Social media do something else to support journalism: They help us hold citizen and professional journalists accountable. They make it easier for everyday people to become what journalism scholar Michael Schudson termed “monitorial.”
Monitorial citizens don’t necessarily read deeply, but they do scan the information environment, staying alert to a wide range of issues around which they can be easily mobilized.
Thanks to social media, the monitorial citizens of the world can track information flows in ways not possible a few years ago. Most updates on social sites like Twitter are permanently archived, easily searchable and just waiting to be analyzed.
For example, I work with a group of computer scientists at Indiana University who created a system — suitably named Truthy — for understanding how information propagates in social media.
Truthy offers everyday citizens, journalists and researchers a zoomed-out view of what’s going on in social media. As a monitor, it’s a potential corrective force against misinformation.
This mix of communities reporting on themselves and journalists innovating can get us closer to the truth.
In the end, though, it’s up to us, not the tools.
• Specializing in the new media, Ibold is an assistant professor of journalism at Indiana University.