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Seven myths of the social media age

The internet was expected to renew democracy, tackle the hegemony of the monopoly news providers and draw us all into a global community. Over the past six months, that idea has been undermined by a new myth which suggests that democracy is, in fact, being overturned by the spawn of the internet: Russian bots and fake news – and that news organisations are losing their power to keep people informed.

But – in the UK at least – there is no evidence to suggest that made-up stories from fake news sites have had any significant impact. The BBC and the mainstream media are still our major sources of information both on and offline. Research during the EU referendum campaign for example found that, of all Twitter links analysed, 63.9% led to stories from professional news organisations. Junk news made up around 5% of the total and there was “little evidence of Russian content”.

1. The internet has improved democracy

The internet was supposed to do this by breaking up the media monopolies and allowing everyone to join the conversation. However the internet always boosts the most popular voice in every niche, so the biggest news providers are still the most read, and small news publications struggle for funds. More than 200 local newspapers have closed in the UK since 2015. Certainly there is more choice if you look for it, but the biggest concern is the number of people across the world who have simply tuned out altogether and choose to watch kittens and comedy rather than news.

2. We are all journalists now

We can all broadcast from our smart phones, but mostly we share pictures of our children. The effect of digital disruption has been that the media landscape is becoming more concentrated and the number of paid journalists is dropping as “legacy” media organisations struggle with falling revenues. But audience members have not replaced them – those smartphone witness reports, tweeted by passers-by, would vanish into the ether if they were not found and shared by a diminishing number of paid journalists.

On the other hand, the internet has created an army of social media “influencers” who, if they are canny, turn themselves into “brands” which they leverage online to recommend – or sell – everything from make up to luxury cars in return for payment in kind or cash. Meanwhile, the few genuinely new voices being created online rise and fall as they have always done, clinging to the margins and hoping to get noticed in the mad rush of information.

3. The many are smarter than the few

Books with titles such as The Wisdom of Crowds have suggested that the internet would lead to a form of pure direct democracy because, if you ask enough people a question, the answer will always be correct.

Of course, this isn’t always the case. James Surowiecki via Amazon

But this naive optimism did not factor in the myriad ways in which people (or in this case their data) could be manipulated. In countries with no reliable and trusted source of mainstream news, people make money by inventing stories tailored to press buttons of fear and prejudice.

In the US, where news has become highly polarised and mainstream news has lost the trust of large swaths of voters, researchers studying the swing state of Michigan, found stories categorised as fake news were just as likely to be shared as news from professional sources in the election period of 2016.

But fake news is not the preserve of junk-news factories. In late February, The Sun removed from its site an entirely specious article about savings to be made from Brexit after a mauling by economist Jonathan Portes.

But by that time the story had already been retweeted by leading Conservative Brexiteer, Jacob Rees-Mogg, to his 121,000 followers. Rees-Mogg has not (to date) corrected or apologised for his tweet – but then he only follows five people so he may not know about his error.

4. The internet has produced a ‘global village’

The “global village” was the brainchild of American media scholar Marshal McLuhan who – as early as 1964 – expounded the idea that in the electronic age, everyone would have access to the same information through technology. This would seem to have been borne out by the internet.

But evidence suggests that the centralising tendency of monopoly global media is growing. A tiny number of companies including Facebook and Google are now the gatekeepers to information across the world – and they are nearly all American. And, in emerging economies and authoritarian states, the hopes about democratising social movements are being undone by the growing incursion of government propaganda into the online space.

5. The internet brings us together

There is much to be grateful for in the ways in which the internet and social media allow us to communicate laterally. It takes only seconds to communicate to thousands via WhatApp and minutes to produce a petition and upload it to Facebook. What is less certain is its ability to unite people across the boundaries of personal affiliation and to encourage genuine debate.

Quick and easy to participate in debate via smartphone or computer. Andrey_Popov

American researchers Michael Beam, Myiah Hutchens and Jay Hmielowski tried to pick apart the different effects of reading online newspapers and sharing material on social media. They found that reading online, like reading offline, increases knowledge – but, on social media, people may share without reading. This may be partly why some scholars fear that political polarisation goes hand-in-hand with rising use of social media.

6. Nobody trusts the mainstream media

When asked whether they trust the media, the tendency in many countries is to say no – but when asked whether they trust their favourite news outlet, trust levels rise dramatically. However in northern Europe, one factor stands out: people trust their traditional media more than they trust online and social media news sources. More importantly public broadcasting tends to be trusted across the political spectrum drawing people together rather than splitting them apart.

7. The new ‘digital generation’

Here is the biggest myth of them all – that there is a new digital generation that is mistrustful of mainstream news and busy creating a more democratic, and less “dutiful”, “self-actualising” future. It is reassuring to think that young people have the answers and will usher in the newer, nicer world that their elders failed to produce. But none of us is born digital. Young people are no more instinctively able to navigate online than they would be able to drive a car without lessons. Exploration alone won’t teach young people how to sort out misinformation and propaganda from facts.

As my Norwegian co-author Eiri Elvestad and I discuss in a new book, Misunderstanding News Audiences, seven myths of the social media age, technology is changing our democracy – but we are not helpless in the face of it, nor are we liberated by it. As with previous major technical shifts, we are in the processing of adapting it to our needs and that process varies according to who we are and where we live. Democracy will be strengthened if we learn how to use the internet wisely. If we leave it to the winds of the free market we may indeed find that it overwhelms us.

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