By: Chelsea Tornetto
We live in a society that demands instant gratification. We eat fast food, buy our insurance in 15 minutes or less, and download our entertainment instantly on our smartphones. I get it. I hate to wait. I’m the first one to grumble and tap my fingers impatiently when a web page is loading at a snail’s pace, or to grind my teeth when I’m stuck behind a slow-walker at the mall. But somewhere between the McDonald’s drive through and our unlimited, high-speed data plans, we took things a step too far. We allowed our need for speed to surpass our desire to know the truth.
Before the dawn of social media, the majority of Americans learned about world events by watching the nightly news on the major networks. This news was gathered and reported by journalists who, by and large, took pride in reporting the facts regardless of politics or personal beliefs. There was an intangible sense that journalism was a field akin to law enforcement or scientific research, where professionals followed the evidence wherever it led them, and reported their findings without bias, regardless of their hypotheses. I can remember learning about Upton Sinclair and the ethical responsibilities of journalists in high school and developing a great deal of respect for the people who researched, wrote, and broadcast the news. In my mind, they were like the crime fighters of the world of information – making sure politicians, business tycoons, or others with agendas, weren’t allowed to hide the truth or feed me lies. Their job was to guard against spin.
Those kinds of journalists are absolutely still out there. I don’t, for a minute, think there is a lack of good journalism in America today. Rather, I think the trouble is that an entirely new genre of news-as-entertainment has blurred the lines between news and editorialism, and we, as consumers, can’t be bothered to differentiate between the two.
Why did this happen? How did Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Michael Moore, Morgan Spurlock…and whatever documentary is trending on Netflix, become our go-to sources of “news?” When did we decide that we would rather listen to someone else’s opinion, than be responsible for forming our own?
It was when we first saw that little blue thumbs up symbol, that America lost its ever-loving mind.
Facebook’s “like” button, changed the way the world read, produced, and disseminated news by allowing networks to see, in a totally new way, exactly what types of shows, articles, videos, and reports were gaining the most attention. A news piece that was liked and shared the most, brought in more viewers, and of course, more money. To capitalize on this, networks began to produce and promote more of the editorial, and sometimes sensational, content viewers “liked.” As they began to give an equal amount of time to these pieces as they did to strictly informative ones, the public began to give the former equal weight. And then, to make matters worse, it wasn’t just the traditional, experienced, trusted news networks publishing news anymore. Suddenly, ANYONE with a computer could be a journalist. And the more “likes” something got, the more legitimate it appeared to be.
Now, in truth, this movement towards news-as-entertainment, and the fast-and-loose use of the term “journalist,” was probably already happening. But the “like” button very effectively turned the traditional role of news on it’s head. Instead of the news existing to inform citizens, the citizens were now informing the press of just what they wanted the news to be. The students had taken charge of the classroom.
But that’s not all.
The moment we read something on Facebook, we can share it. We feel a strange sense of satisfaction and dare I say, belonging, when we check back in and find that someone else has “liked” the article or video we shared. This makes us want to share more, and “like” more…and just generally put our opinions out there…more. And sharing opinions is great, IF – and this is a big if – they are reasoned opinions. Opinions formed from knowledge, facts, logic, and moral grounding.
And who has the time to do all that CRITICAL THINKING when that little thumbs up is staring you in the face? Do you “like” this or not? Quick! If you keep scrolling or click away to do some research or think about it for minute, you might miss your chance to share your opinion with the world! That won’t do at all! Just make your decision based on the title….and maybe the picture. Nevermind it was published by “Buzzfeed.” Your 4,215 “friends” need to know!
So we like, and share, and comment (oh, the comments…) all without Walter Cronkite or Ted Koppel and their teams to verify sources and tell us whether what we are reading is even true. And you know what’s really scary? We don’t really care if it’s true or not. Because we “like” it! It matches our beliefs, our biases. It supports what we love, or attacks what we hate. The truth becomes secondary to the feeling it gives us. After all…what could be more important than how we feel? We create our own social media echo-chamber to make sure we always have a “safe space” where we are guaranteed to feel good…where everybody “likes” us.
Social media and its subsequent impact on news, has done for critical thinking what fast food did to nutrition. It has cheapened our tastes and made us crave instant information and interaction, rather than substantive knowledge. Worse, just as fast food has led to a generation of young people who have lost the skill of cooking, social media, as a filter for news, has led to a generation who don’t have a clue how to evaluate whether that news is credible, or crap.
We need to fix it. Just as we need to teach the next generation the skill of cooking and the value of sharing a home cooked meal with family. Just as we need to remind them of the joys of playing outside instead of staring at a screen, or convince them that a face-to-face conversation can be so much better than a text message. We need to fix it, because what’s at stake now isn’t just our health or our social skills – it’s our democracy! After all, who’s to blame for the impact of “fake news” on voters…the people who write it….or the idiots who believe it?
So, the next time you read something on Facebook, first of all, really read it. Read the byline, the author’s credentials, and the “About Us” page of the publisher. Next, Google whatever the article is about. Read at least two other articles on the same topic from other reputable news sources. Purposely seek out and read sources that contradict your own gut reactions and personal beliefs. Have an actual conversation with someone who seems knowledgeable about the subject, and be civil. Compare facts. Watch for spin. Be critical. Sound like a lot of work? It is! Want to avoid it? Too bad. You are a responsible adult citizen of the most powerful democracy on earth. Do your job…or please stop voting.
But it’s just a “like,” you say. What’s the big deal? I’m not responsible for being an expert on everything I like on Facebook! Maybe not. But likes turn into shares, and shares turn into public misconceptions, and public misconceptions turn into votes, and votes turn into policy. And that’s a big responsibility.
After all, as Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.” Well, I’m doing my best with the 120 middle schoolers that sit in my classroom each year, but it’s the adults I’m worried about.
Oh…and please share this article with your 4,215 friends. I hope they “like” it!