Is it a saving grace for families and friends who can’t connect any other way right now? Or the bane of our existence, giving a platform to bullies, miscreants, and disinformation?
Social media is both. Like any technological development, it brings huge benefits, but has significant downsides and one thing is clear: the platforms may change and evolve, but it’s here to stay.
As someone who works in the marketing and public relations field, social media is an important tool in our arsenal for work, but on a personal level, I’ve also met some wonderful people (largely on Twitter), been able to stay in touch with family who live in different countries and time zones (on Facebook and Instagram), and generally felt the comfort of sharing events – both positive and negative – with people everywhere. But there are some important steps that all of us – and yes, I include myself – can and should take to make social media a better place for everyone. And no, it doesn’t mean you need to refrain from posting news stories and political commentary and limit your posts to puppies and babies. But it does mean you have to take responsibility for what you post.
Here are five things everyone can do to be better social media citizens:
1. READ THE FULL ARTICLE BEFORE REACTING TO THE HEADLINE.
We teach our children that reading and thinking critically are important skills and Spark Notes are no substitute for reading a full article, essay or book. It’s hard: there’s a ton of information out there and it’s overwhelming. And when you see a headline, it’s so tempting to think you know everything you need to know from a few words. But remember that news organizations often create those headlines to gain your emotional reaction, to sensationalize and highlight the best or worst of the findings in the article, and the reporter/author of the piece rarely writes that headline. Very often the headlines are misleading and reading the entire article will make you wonder how that headline got there in the first place. Not only do you owe it to yourself to read a full article to stay informed, you owe it to the rest of your social media audience, not to react to a post before reading the article in full and not to share an article solely based on its headline. Read and think critically about a full article before you post a “like” or a “comment” and most definitely, read and think critically before you share it yourself.
2. TRUTH MATTERS. CHECK BEFORE SHARING.
It takes just a few moments to make sure that what you’re posting is factual. There are many sites where you can quickly check the veracity of everything from those viral “local thief attacking women at gas stations” posts to the memes that tell you a certain celebrity wrote a diatribe on life (they might be nice, but usually not true), to the cooked-up conspiracy theories that, sadly, even our President shares on Twitter. Snopes.com is a good site for the former and Politifact is a good source for the latter. Sadly, in this time of manufactured news, citizen journalism, 24/7 news cycles, opinions masquerading as facts, and the ease with which all of these can be shared with millions of people rapidly, you have to be vigilant and take time to ensure that you’re not an active participant in sharing falsehoods. When you’re reading an article (because – well, we’ve already established you’re now going to read the entire story and not just the headline, right?) be sure to ask yourself if the story is citing proven facts and evidence or opinions and hearsay. We all know (I hope) that there’s a difference between Dr. Anthony Fauci, quoted in a New York Times story, saying “Social distancing will help prevent transmission of coronavirus”, and a meme your uncle posted on Facebook that shows a group of people on a crowded beach with the words “My immune system and my freedom will protect me”. It’s true that those spreading false information are becoming even more clever over time and that’s why number three on this list is so important…
3. SOURCES MATTER. CHECK THEM OUT AND ENSURE THEY ARE CREDIBLE.
If you’re a teacher, you know that students are asked to cite sources when they write papers. And not only are they required to cite those sources, they are asked to ensure that those sources are credible. There’s a reason most teachers don’t allow students to use Wikipedia as a source; it’s a site to which anyone can contribute and no one checks the veracity of the information. So it stands to reason that not all sources of news and information are credible. Ask yourself a few questions when reading – and certainly before posting – an article:
- Is this story on a site that generally posts real news and information rather than rumors and opinions?
- Does the site or author of the piece have an agenda or a “side” they are trying to represent in the story?
- Is the author a journalist – someone who went to school for journalism and is employed as a journalist by a reputable organization?
All of these questions are vital in determining whether you’re reading something written by a credible source with evidence and facts to back up the story, or a poorly-researched and opinionated piece of rhetoric written by, well, anyone.
A recent NPR story reported that researchers have found that nearly half of all Twitter accounts tweeting about coronavirus are likely Bots. They noted:
“Researchers culled through more than 200,000 tweets discussing the virus since January and found that 45% were sent by accounts that behave more like computerized robots than humans.”
What were these accounts tweeting? Be sure to read the full story I’ve linked to, but in short, among the misinformation being spread was 100 false narratives about COVID-19 including conspiracy theories about hospitals being filled with mannequins, or tweets that connected the spread of the virus to 5G.
We know that this is one way Russia interfered in our 2016 election: fake accounts on Facebook and Twitter spreading false information and conspiracy theories. So don’t be the person who reposts or retweets stories and information that are false – particularly those generated from fake accounts. Yes, it takes some vigilance and responsibility, but you can determine fairly easily if an account is fake (check out Botometer on Twitter) and that’s part of being a good social media citizen. And that leads me to number four…
4. BE PART OF THE SOLUTION: REPORT AND ELIMINATE FAKE ACCOUNTS AND FALSE INFORMATION.
Like the “if you see something, say something” signs that we’ve all seen at airports and other places where security is critical, on social media, our ability to sift through the rubbish and find the nuggets of importance and truth depend on everyone being vigilant in the fight against bad information. If you see someone posting information you know to be false, say something (nicely, and if need be, privately). If you find fake accounts on Twitter, report them; Facebook, sadly, seems to take little action on user-reported accounts, and recently, Mark Zuckerberg has said that he doesn’t feel social media platform companies should be held responsible for the content posted on them. That said, they will warn users who have engaged with or reacted to posts that contain misinformation that Facebook believes will cause imminent physical harm. In particular, they’ve applied this to false Coronavirus information circulating on the platform (such as, injecting bleach as a remedy). The hope is that these warnings cause users to stop, read, and make the right decision not to share if the information is deemed false and could cause harm.
The bottom line is that If we’re going to use social media – and remember, we use it for FREE – we need to be active participants in making it a better place to be. Which leads me to my last plea…
5. SUPPORT REAL JOURNALISM
Times are difficult and people are strapped for cash. Not everyone has a job and budgets are being cut. I get it. Unfortunately, even before this pandemic hit, most of us were used to getting our “information” and “news” for free. The internet is a vast wasteland of free items and we all know the adage “you get what you pay for”. Or in this case, what you don’t pay for. Coronavirus coverage aside – which most reputable publications are offering up to anyone without placing it behind their paywall – good, quality products, made by good, quality people should command a price. This is true in journalism as it is in any other industry. If you want publications to be able to pay the salaries of top reporters and editors who studied and earned degrees for their craft, you have to be willing to pay for a subscription. There truly has never been a time in history where good journalism has been so important – even before the pandemic hit and particularly now with the protests happening around our country. Now, more than ever, if you can afford it, please consider supporting valuable publications that employ reputable journalists: NPR, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and more. And while you’re at it, it’s helpful to look outside the U.S. for a global perspective. If you can read the Financial Times, watch BBC News or Al Jazeera, it will open your eyes to how the rest of the world sees issues – and how our own country is viewed by others.
Social media is here to stay and I’ve been just as guilty as the next person of abusing it. But I’m trying hard to practice what I preach every day now: Reading thoroughly and critically, checking sources and facts, pausing before commenting or “liking” a post, ensuring that I not only move away from blatantly false information, but reporting those spreading it – especially those that are clearly fake accounts. And I subscribe to both the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times, and try to read several other valid news sources weekly. We are all citizens of the world and of social media, and therefore, we all have to take responsibility for making it not just a fun, but safe and informative place to spend time.