Truong: Sated After News Feed

It is okay for Americans to get their news from social media.

by Valerie Truong | 2/8/18 1:15am

According to a 2017 Pew Research Center survey, about 67 percent of adults in America rely on social media platforms for their news, up 5 percent from 2016. I am part of that 67 percent — I get almost all of my news, both local and national, through Facebook.

I understand why relying on Facebook alone would be a harbinger of bias. Facebook is a company, which means it is in the business of making money. Most of its revenue comes from advertisements, so the social media site must entice other businesses to pay for ad space. To accomplish this, Facebook aims for more active users and an increased amount of time spent on the site per user. It is no secret that Facebook uses algorithms that personalize each user’s news feed. It now prioritizes content from a user’s friends and family and takes into account the pages she has liked or followed to populate her feed with content she is most likely to be interested in. As a result, that user is likely only to see posts her friends have liked or shared or content she personally enjoys. If Facebook serves as the prevailing news source on politics and government for many citizens, increased political polarization is a valid concern.

Yet, Facebook’s algorithms ease our search for news. Rather than accumulate printed newspapers, watch television and listen to the radio, we can access the same stories and opinions online. In fact, more content is available online than in print. News on Facebook is not too different from content published via traditional sources. If my Facebook feed leans liberal, it is most likely because my friends and I have liked pages that promote liberal viewpoints. I chose which media companies I wanted to see content from, just as others can freely choose which newspapers they subscribe to and which television programs or radio channels they follow. Either way, people are going to consume what they want to consume.

Additionally, social media sites like Facebook and Twitter offer citizens a greater variety of news sources. With one click or tap, users can add a new media outlet to their feed without being restricted to a limited geographical area or time slot. This potentially allows for a wide dissemination of views. I follow the media outlets that post content I enjoy, but I recognize that some of them have a liberal slant. I take content from pages like CNN and the New Yorker with a grain of salt — the former just published a story on the three school shootings that have occurred at a middle school or high school in January alone, and the latter is a magazine with left-leaning content such as a piece on China’s #MeToo movement. Previously, I followed Fox News in an attempt to view news through a conservative lens. However, I became frustrated with some of Fox’s unreasonable stories — one praised Ivanka Trump’s tweet about the importance of Black History Month and equality when in reality, her own clothing line is sourced from overseas factories where workers may not have the right to speak up.

Some may say that Facebook should be used primarily for connecting with friends instead of as a news dump. However, I prefer to save online interactions and updates from friends for other social media outlets such as Instagram or Snapchat. Direct conversations can take place over Facebook Messenger or through text messages. Yet, a 2014 Pew survey found that “social media doesn’t always facilitate conversation around the important issues of the day.” The survey asked people how willingly they would discuss the topic of government surveillance programs at a family dinner, in a restaurant setting with friends, at a community meeting, at work, on Facebook or on Twitter. While two-thirds or more of respondents were either very willing or somewhat willing to join the conversation in the first four settings, only about 40 percent of respondents were willing to discuss the issue on social media. But the Pew survey does not take into account the extent to which people know their audience. Most people would be willing to talk about important issues with people who are reciprocally important to them, such as family and friends, presumably those who would be more receptive and understanding of their opinions. It is not necessarily the substance of the content posted online nor the medium used to share it that contributes to a stagnation in conversation, but rather people’s understandable discomfort with sharing their thoughts on a public platform. For those who hold occasionally controversial opinions, an online forum capturing records of every post and populated by people users do not know well or at all is a reasonable disincentive.

When it comes to the bottom line, what is most important is that I am getting my news and learning about what goes on around me. Where else am I supposed to get news? Television and radio are largely inaccessible in my current environment. Newspapers are limited both in the number of media sources and in their coverage. With Facebook, I have access to almost any news source at multiple levels. At the local level, I follow our very own The Dartmouth; regionally I enjoy KPCC, a California-based public radio station, and the Los Angeles Times; nationally and internationally I read NPR, CNN, the Economist, PBS NewsHour, BBC, AP, Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and the New Yorker. These platforms range from liberal to moderate, but altogether provide me expansive news coverage.

I believe Facebook calls its home page a “news feed” for a reason. If it does not exist to feed its users news, what is it for?