The Relentless Rise of Social Media as a News Platform

Socialmedia-pmIf you are my age, and were already old enough to join the AARP when George W. Bush began his first term as president in 2001, you may feel nostalgia for the era when the early news of the day arrived with the dull “thunk” of the morning newspaper landing in your yard. You may also remember the time before the advent of the 24-hour cable news cycle, when you stayed awake to catch the last news of the day from your nearby broadcast television station. Local news ran at 11 p.m., national at 11:30.

But today the sound you associate with breaking news might be the beep, buzz, or chirp of a social media app, particularly if you are 30-years-old or younger.

The percentage of Americans who read the news on social media, Twitter and Facebook in particular, has been rising steadily, according to a report entitled “The Evolving Role of News on Twitter and Facebook”, published last June by the Pew Research Center.

Both platforms saw a more than 10% increase in the share of their users who discover news there. Facebook hosts more news readers, since they have a much larger user base than Twitter, but Twitter is the preferred platform for breaking news as it unfolds. A higher percentage of Twitter users follow the official accounts of news organizations.

But despite social media’s growing popularity as a source of news, the same research team, in a January report entitled “The 2016 Presidential Campaign – a News Event That’s Hard to Miss”, found that the public considers cable TV coverage of the 2016 presidential election more useful than social media coverage. 24% of the adult population found cable TV the most useful, followed by social media and local TV, which tied for second place at 14%.

The dominance of cable TV for election coverage may change over time though, as Millennials become a larger part of the population. The breakdown of Pew’s polling by age shows that social media is the most useful source of election news among 18 to 29-year-olds, at 35%, while cable TV coverage drops to third place, at 12%.

But while cable TV’s long term prospects may not look good, the terrible news is for print newspapers. Only 5% of people 65-years and older prefer print media for their 2016 election coverage, and it drops to an alarming 1% in the 18 to 29 age group.

Every survey Pew has conducted over the past 10 years has shown a growing trend away from television, radio, and newspapers and toward social media apps on mobile devices as the most popular way of getting the news. Even people my age receive more and more of their news online. The quiet “thunk” of the newspaper landing on lawns is already a rare sound, and soon broadcast and cable TV might join print publications as an object of nostalgia among senior citizens.

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The decline of news site comment sections

me-at-computer(1)Have you ever encountered a reader comment under an online news story that made you think about the article from a new perspective, that engaged you, added information or a fresh outlook to the story, and lived up to the Internet’s promise of becoming the ultimate forum for debate and discussion?

Neither have I. Or if I have, it’s been buried in the sea of angry rants and toxic verbal sludge we’ve come to expect from the Internet.

“Don’t read the comments” has become popular advice.

The removal of comments sections, or restricting them, is a growing trend among online news sites. Popular Science dropped its online comment section in 2013. The Chicago Sun-Times suspended its reader comment sections in 2014, then resumed them under a limited number of articles.

Stephen Pritchard, the reader’s editor for the weekly newspaper the Observer, affiliated with The Guardian, recently wrote, in an article on changes to The Observer’s comment policies:

But more concerning is the ever-rising level of abuse, trolling and “astroturfing” (propaganda posting – an artificial version of a grassroots campaign) currently polluting what are often illuminating and stimulating discussions.

The Observer has decided to suspend the comment sections on articles about race, Islam, and immigration unless the editorial staff has enough moderators on hand to handle the flow of racist abuse and trolling that accompanies articles on these topics.

A twitter user tweeting under the name @DMReporter (whose profile states that the account has no affiliation with the Daily Mail) highlights toxic comments in the popular UK tabloid The Daily Mail. @DMReporter tweeted copies of the following comments from an article that referred to the drowning death of children attempting to immigrate to Europe.

Sorry, but we are wise to this propaganda now.

 

I’m sorry, but I don’t care anymore, they should be stopped before they set off.

 

… I am immune to these deaths & drownings, cold & immune.

How do any of these three comments add to the discussion of immigration? Promote human understanding? Move the marketplace of ideas forward? Is this what the more avid promotors of uninhibited speech on the internet have in mind?

 

The New York Times probably has the least obnoxious comments section of any high profile news site. How do they do it? They pre-moderate each comment, and don’t allow posting under anonymous ids. People are less likely to post abusive one-liners and racist or misogynistic rants under their own names, and those who do are filtered out by the Times moderators. This approach works, but not all online news organizations can afford the battery of moderators it must take to keep the Times reader comments under control.

I would like to think that there is a space for intelligent, civil, and compassionate online feedback and discussion. But the comments sections under online articles don’t seem to be living up to that promise.