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  • Writer's pictureUpanishad Sharma

How social media acts as journalism’s friend and foe (Part 1)

The tie-up between journalism and social media is a volatile one. News has a habit of spreading like wildfire once it reaches the right audience. Social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook act as the spark that ignite this reaction.

The constant stream of information helps individuals and organisations promote their content. However, as stable as it may seem, problems always arise. One moment a piece is gaining recognition by social promotion, the term, ‘fake news’ is being thrown around. With all that has happened in recent years, a significant number of people have learned that perhaps, not everything you see online can be trusted.

But the fact remains that the most efficient way of sharing information is the Internet and with it come various social networks bundled together like a package deal.

Social media brings a lot to the table, especially when it comes to the world of reporting. Journalists get increased access to breaking information, minute-by-minute updates and a common ground where they can spread their work quickly.

If the world of immersive realities transports the audience to another world, social media is the carriage that takes them to the gates. In other words, through this process of posting and promotion, readers online and even offline become more aware of the world around them.

The media world started tapping into the internet as a means of spreading information years ago. Twitter houses over 330 million monthly active users, which effectively means 330 million potential consumers.

With all the limitless opportunity online, why not aspire to be the most visited news site. It’s easy to get caught up in thinking that all is good in the land of social media. Unfortunately, though, it hasn’t been going very well.

2018: The year of Facebook

It was on 17th March 2018 when The Guardian broke the news on Cambridge Analytica, a data-gathering firm which had harvested over 50 million Facebook user profiles in an attempt to build a software which would influence people's electoral choices.

Exposed by a whistleblower who used to work in the firm, the company had actively and indirectly worked with Donald Trump's election team and the Brexit winning party to create targeted advertisements in an attempt to change mindsets.

Protesters outside Parliament Square, Images by: John Lubbock via Wikimedia

The exposé caused immense outcry for all the parties, including Facebook. It resulted in CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifying before the US Senate and House in multiple hearings relating to the data scandal.

Since then, Facebook has never been the same. The social platform, with over 2.3 billion users, has been mired in controversies ever since 2018. From accusations of helping a dictator win elections in the Philippines to paying teenagers 20 dollars a month to install an illegal app on IOS and Android, things have not been good.

The interference with Journalism

Data harvesting and illegal applications might be terrible for the population in general, but do they have anything to do with journalists? Turns out they do. Because of Facebook’s shortcomings in protecting users privacy, they are now forced to become extremely restrictive when it comes to privacy and news platforms.

The social media giant has attempted to change its news feed algorithm twice till yet, and both times have been met with a lukewarm reaction. The first change was extreme in nature and prioritised non-publisher content resulting in increased engagement on various topics of discussion such as gun law, abortion.

The second iteration is a much-improved version, which has been dubbed the Click-Gap algorithm. The new version will compare a website’s popularity on Facebook vs the rest of the internet. If the given site’s exposure is hugely disproportionate on Facebook, then its reach will be limited.

This has hit down on numerous news sites while others have been left untouched.

The Dual-Edged Sword

The resulting difficulties have impacted journalists and data researchers alike. The Columbia Journalism Review discusses the same problem in detail. According to the CJR, the 2018 Facebook data lockdown has made things difficult not only for under shadow firms like Analytica but also for ethical researchers trying to analyse political trends on social media.

Speaking about their own efforts in gathering political data, the piece goes on in painting a future scenario where data gathered will be lesser in quantity with app restriction. The article reads “ During the 2020 election, we will still be collecting social media data, but we will get less of it. It will also be harder to maintain access for our apps. But we are updating our illuminating site to include access to 2014, 2016, 2018, and 2020 elections.”

In hindsight, this seemed like a good move, considering the need to protect the privacy of millions. However, the resulting restrictions also tell of a scenario where censorship of this kind might flesh on towards the internet in its entirety.

So what about making profits then? And what does Facebook think about 'Fake News'? Read on in part two.

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