Early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, we warned on this page that people needed to be careful and thoughtful regarding the information they share on social media. That is doubly true during a divisive and controversial political season.
That was not only important because of the changing nature of the pandemic response, as well as the long-term nature of the event, but also because, while social media has kept us connected while we’ve been separated, it also has a propensity to drive division between individuals and groups.
Today, that warning needs to be repeated. Tomorrow, it will need to be repeated as well, and it will need to be repeated the next day and from then on. The internet and social media, despite all the good it has done and continues to do, is also a double-edged sword.
We, as a newspaper, have the ability to communicate in a mass fashion with the public, through both print and digital means. Social media gives individuals and organizations the exact same power.
However, the difference is that the information that is released through our various channels is treated much differently. Any of us as individuals can pretty well post whatever we want on social media, no matter how controversial, or truthful, it really is.
However, the information that comes out of our newspaper and various digital outlets is processed responsibly and vetted. We employ individuals as reporters to gather and ascertain the veracity of information and sources. We consider the impact of our words before putting them out. We take the time to make sure we get the right information out the first time.
Sometimes, we’re wrong. And when we are, we own up to it and issue a correction. We also will not repeat incorrect information.
Our jobs mean that we daily are inundated with information from various sources including individuals and organizations, press releases, other news sources and social media. We know you are too. In fact, there has been no more data-driven time in the history of humanity. It’s estimated that more than 50 percent of the earth’s population uses some type of social media, meaning nearly 3 billion people.
That means that, at any given time, you are potentially being inundated with information of an unknown origin and veracity from any number of billions of people.
The old idiom “trying to drink from a firehose” doesn’t even begin to describe what each of us are trying to do each day as we navigate our daily lives.
And, as we often mention, it’s not just people who are accidentally sharing false or spurious information. There are any number of people at any given time who are using social media in an attempt to get into you wallet, or even into your brain.
We’re not just talking hackers attempting to steal from you. No, through the use of social media, we’re providing more than enough information to allow people with political and other aims to manipulate us by showing us the information they want us to see.
There are numerous examples of companies using the data we provide in an attempt to manipulate voting blocs in favor of the highest bidder, and there are also numerous examples of bad actors using social media to foment chaos and division among people groups.
It’s difficult to be wise enough to stay ahead of the curve on all this, which is why it remains important to check information before sharing. You may see a headline or a story abstract that seems to back up an assertion you’ve made and share it without investigating further, only to find later that it wasn’t what it appeared on the surface.
It can easily be said that social media providers are ethically responsible for the information shared through their platforms. However, from a legal perspective, there is a questionable duty. And, with big problems always brewing, we somehow doubt their processes catch misinformation campaigns which focus on hundreds or fewer people. That is despite the fact that these campaigns damage people’s lives.
Each of us are within the rights to share information via social media, but we have a responsibility to others to ensure that the information we share helps, not harms, the public discourse.
We also have to be careful to understand that very little reaches us through social media without the provider’s agenda playing a role in what we see.
Social media can be a tool for good, used to bring us closer, or it can be a tool for evil which drives division and chaos. The choice isn’t up to some nameless, faceless company or organization. The choice is ours.