Social media a double-edged sword, media practitioners say

While reporters see social media as a gateway to news sources, its use comes with a caveat.


Social media is the main way many of us consume news. Photo: dole777 on Unsplash (CC BY-SA)

Social media has become embedded in culture and changed the way people communicate – which is why Facebook’s temporary news ban shocked media organisations across Australia, by cutting off access to those in the country who get their news through the social networking giant.

In a fight against the federal government’s News Media Bargaining Code, Facebook banned all Australian news pages from publishing content – restricting Australians from accessing news on the site, while inadvertently blocking public health and emergency information.

The ban followed an update to the bargaining code that would force Facebook to pay publishers for news content posted on the platform.

Managing Director of Facebook Australia and New Zealand William Easton announced the company was unable to come to an agreement with the government, alluding to news organisations supposedly getting the upper hand in negotiations with Facebook.

The tech company claimed that while just four percent of news content appears in the average user’s feed, Facebook is generating 5.1 billion “free referrals” to Australian publishers.

Facebook restored news access to Australians only after Canberra agreed to amend the media bargaining code. The changes mean the government may not apply the code to Facebook if the social media giant can demonstrate they’re willing to negotiate with enough media outlets to pay them for content.

According to a Deloitte survey, 42 percent of Australians use online news websites directly, while 38 percent used Facebook for their daily news.

Geelong Advertiser journalist Jessica Coates says social media has become an essential tool for people to stay up-to-date and informed, which makes her job a bit easier.

“Social media has really made it very easy to access news, especially breaking news in real time,” she says.

The rapid development of technology has made news more accessible and convenient, as most people have access to social media wherever they go.

“You don’t have to be near a TV or a radio, a lot of people in the world have a smartphone,” Ms Coates says.

“Social media brings news right to people’s virtual doorstep, or their pocket.”

But it goes further than just a tool for journalists to reach their audiences, Ms Coates says, pointing out that social media is essential for sourcing local stories.

Community pages, groups, or directly messaging locals can help a journalist find important details of a story.

“Often somebody will post when there’s something happening, maybe in their street, to a local Facebook group,” she says, adding that local Facebook pages can be helpful in terms of gauging the way a community feels about a certain issue.

“Social media is a really important part of the day-to-day of a journalist’s job these days,” she says.

While the accessibility of social media has made it easier to stay informed Dr Christopher Scanlon, a senior lecturer in communication at Deakin University says a lack of editorial “gatekeeping” opens the door open for dangerous or misleading information to spread.

According to a study by the University of Canberra, 66 percent of people say they’ve found misinformation about COVID-19 on social media.

Thirty-six percent also said they found false information in news media coverage.

“Facebook and Twitter and all the rest of them have sped up the proliferation of fake news,” Dr Scanlon says.

While fake news can be attributed to mistakes and errors made by journalists, Dr Scanlon says the way people interpret information also plays a role.

“Social media and the internet have created a new information environment, in which our capacity to sift through and read critically through the information we get has almost been overwhelmed,” he says.

Technological innovation has ultimately changed news forever, and Dr Scanlon believes the digital landscape will continue to evolve alongside consumer trends.

“What tends to happen with technological change is that one technology doesn’t wipe out another – it reconfigures it in the media environment,” he says.

“I think that print forms of information will be with us for a very long time – paper products will be a niche product and possibly a premium product that you will buy as a form of status.”

Peter White is studying a Bachelor of Media and Communication at La Trobe University, majoring in Media Industries