On his maiden-trip to India this month, Jack Dorsey - Twitter’s Co-Founder and CEO, claimed that the real task for Twitter is to identify content that misleads people into taking an action. However, the little blue bird is still unclear about how it plans to identify “intent” behind tweets.
The use of social media in propagating fake news endangers the very information we consume, as 'tweeting' now situates itself influentially within the ambit of news reportage.
A study that surveyed over 4,700 Twitter users online reveals that 9 out of 10 people use Twitter for news and the majority does so on a daily basis; even for breaking news.These users follow journalists, media houses and key influencers (a.k.a Twitterati) among others. While some ‘search’ for news on the platform, others feed on ‘Trending Topics’ by scrolling through feeds that are presented to them.
Traditional media is constantly playing catch-up with the ever-growing social media platforms, which seem to be doing the former’s job quicker than them.
Be it a discussion on the ongoing tussle between the Government and the Central Bank of the country, a crusade that travelled from US to expose hostile work-environments in Indian industries, or a running commentary on India’s latest feat in a world championship, Twitter users and the like typically have a ‘#’ ready, making it a trendy source of news and ‘statements’. Like in case of the 2014 General Elections, when Bhartiya Janta Party’s victory was announced by Narendra Modi himself, becoming India’s most shared tweet on the platform and other media at that time.
While Twitter allows individuals to become information channels, overcoming the barriers of media ownership and control, it also puts a question mark on the dependability of news sources that have been traditionally used in print and broadcast industries.
Talking theoretically, use of Twitter as a news source allows consumers to design their own ‘information diet’, ruling out the agenda-setting effect of news organizations.
However, a debate on Recency vs. Relevancy lingers.
A primary reason why people and news organizations prefer to use social networks like Twitter to break news might be the platform’s immediacy and user-ability to track developments in real time.
‘Trending Topics’ (TTs), often used as sieves for ‘newsworthy’ content, are updated every 10-15 minutes, luring the general user to come back to the platform for latest info that is collected on the basis of usage of keywords in TTs solely by number.
However, with TTs sprouting within minutes, the churn rate of news stories on Twitter is very high. Therefore, a consumer who visits the site twice or three times a day will receive different content at all times.
Reliance on social media websites for news by traditional media brings ‘recent’ issues into the limelight, risking an information-overload and making the audience wonder – why is this news?
The kind of importance given to ‘recency’ deludes the consumer of what may be more relevant to them. Hence, users might end up missing ‘news’ and information merely because of their browsing habits.
Twitter - A Two-Step Flow Model
Twitter as a model encapsulates the theory of Two-Step Flow of Communication, which had earlier lost its luster due to the lack of empirical data. The theory dates back to 1944, when an American-Austrian sociologist, Paul Lazarsfeld, devised the Two-Step Flow Model by studying the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940 to determine voting patterns in context to media coverage of candidates. It rejects an earlier theory of Hypodermic Needle Model of communication flow, which suggested that media ‘injects’ messages into a passive audience, based on observations of media effects of Nazi propaganda.
Lazarsfeld’s model states that information flows from mass media to ‘opinion leaders’ before moving down to ‘followers’ or users of that media.
These opinion leaders are the people who pay close attention to news and mass media – celebrities, activists, politicians, etc.– and can sway public opinion about an issue, given their social and personal influence. They pass on information to their follower base using their opinion/understanding of it.
Twitter works along similar lines, with ‘verified’ users making statements about news directly to the public. This model is not only a channel of communication, but also gives weight to the fact that the audience is an active participant in the communication process and that they are more likely to be influenced by other people than the mass media.
Twitter as a medium and source of news thereby accentuates the role that influencers/opinion leaders play in today’s social sphere, with traditional media treating tweets as verified press releases, unknowingly enhancing their credibility.
Important examples of two-step flow model are influencer-driven projects like Al Gore’s The Climate Project and Narendra Modi’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, for which digital opinion leaders were recruited to create awareness and further education about respective causes. Twitter enabled these campaigns to bypass the conventional path of dissemination and engage with their audience directly, while traditional media began feeding off the platform to be party to what was ‘trending’.
Reporting vs. Advocating
While Twitter rids the agenda-setting effect of media in reporting of breaking news, it also helps broadcast information that comes through opinion leaders. However, one may or may not be able to draw a line between fair reportage and opinionated information about news stories. Usage of certain words in updates and headlines may also extend bias to one side of a story, leading to distortion of the message.
That said, are we then more susceptible to political propaganda?
A study conducted by scientists at MIT revealed that misinformation spread through Twitter infiltrates further and faster into the social network, usually outperforming accurate reports. The study discovered that a false story, which is more ‘novel’, is likely to reach over 1,500 people six times quicker than a true story does. More so, fake news about politics usually performs better than all other subjects.
At what point then do we, as consumers, know that a tweet has impeded the lines between reporting of events and advocating for a cause or even propaganda and fake news?
Today’s mediascape, which largely comprises of the social network, is one where every user is a reader, consumer, writer and publisher. As India enters a vulnerable phase with upcoming state and general elections, one ought to keep an eye out for what may be crusading as ‘news’ and what really holds weight.
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