media update’s Christine Beukes uncovers the reality of social media as a news source and the effect it has on traditional news outlets.

Imagine this: You log onto your Twitter account and all over your newsfeed are tweets about the world’s first Time-Turner (see Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban). The hashtag is everywhere – #TimeToTurnTime. What’s the first thing you do? The answer is obvious: You want to buy one.

Now, you’re scouring the Internet, Googling ‘Time-Turner’ and trying to find any a place that would sell this sort of invention, only to discover that it’s not available anywhere because – yep, that’s right … it’s fake news. You have been fooled by social media once again.

The manipulation of online news on social media

In 2013, an ad – implemented by 4chan – was released about Apple’s new iPhone. This ad convinced users on social media that the new iOS 7 … was waterproof.

Suddenly, users all over the digisphere were posting angry tweets about their broken phones. But it didn’t stop there.

With new iOS releases thereafter (IOS 8, iPhone 6 Plus and iPhone 7), 4chan made various marketing campaigns that went viral on social media, showing how these new phones could be microwaved, bent at a 60-degree angle and even drilled into in order to discover a ‘hidden’ audio jack. 

These examples are not meant to make digital publications worry about pranksters or hackers – the intention here is to show just how easy it is for a fake story to go viral on social media.

It would be very difficult for this fake ad to appear in a reputable publication as the pranksters at 4chan would have to go to great lengths in order to get this published – and to get people to believe that it came from Apple itself.

To be placed in traditional media, the ad would have to go through multiple editors, journalists – and let’s not forget Apple’s public relations company – before being published. Online, however, all the people of 4chan had to do was have amazing Photoshop and video editing skills – and voila! A fake ad is strewn all over social media. It’s that easy!

To make matters a bit more complicated, all of these ads are left up to public perception. Ambiguous content is shown online – anything from an image to a video to a quote – and if enough people believe that content is real and spread it on social platforms, others will follow. And it’s there that the power of social media is shown and fake news becomes an epidemic.

But what does this say about trust?

Image sourced from Cheatsheet

Traditional and social media rely on reader trust

It’s difficult to decipher how the trust of news is allocated to a particular media – whether it’s digital or traditional – and the reason for that is because trust is a human behaviour.

“Trust isn’t something you can measure with a browser event: it’s a human behavior [that] demands a human-centric approach to how it’s nurtured and how it’s evaluated,” says Em Kunze in an article for Content Insights.

People will often form their opinion of a news outlet before an article goes out. That opinion could come from someone who has had an experience with that media company before, or from a friend or family member with a positive or negative opinion about the company.

That opinion can also then spread on social media and, if that opinion is because of a negative experience, you can bet your bottom dollar that it’s going to show up on everyone’s newsfeed.

For example, let’s say you have formed a trusted relationship with a traditional media company called News Publication. You rely on the publication for all of your celebrity news; however, one day you receive your monthly subscription only to discover various articles about real estate and ‘choosing the best home for you’.

Now, you do not rely on News Publication anymore as it no longer suits your specific needs. You then search for news elsewhere and the trust is broken. Additionally, News Publication now has bad reviews on social media as well as a ‘fun’ new hashtag: #CelebDetailsNotRetail.

So how does anyone build trust within the media?

Transparency is the key to credibility – so to speak

A vital way for digital and traditional news publications to build trust is to be transparent. This means ensuring that the information they source, produce and put out in the media and social media is unbiased, factual and neutral unless otherwise specified.

It also means that companies need to be vocal about who their sources are and where they got their information from as well as what their process is for gathering said information.

“The first step toward transparency is to listen to readers about what they don’t know – and what they want to know – about how news is gathered, verified and reported,” says Jane Elizabeth, author at the American Press Institute.

One way for the traditional media to do this is to invite their audiences into their world. They can do this by producing content about their process or by telling readers step-by-step how things are done at the company. They can also post images and videos on social media that actually show readers what life is like in the media industry.  

The key to trust is understanding, and once readers understand what you do, they’ll be more likely to believe what you have to say. However, the world of social media is fickle – so for every piece of content that goes online, there’s always going to be someone who has something to say – and that something is not always an accurate, nevermind fair, opinion.  

“As more and more [people] get their news through social media, content gets divorced from context that allows readers to decide whether a story is trustworthy,” writes Michael Blanding in an article for NiemanReports.  

Even if a traditional news company were transparent and the journalists’ reports were neutral and unbiased, the content could still get blown out of proportion on social media or lead to misleading opinions. 

" ... content gets divorced from context that allows readers to decide whether a story is trustworthy." 

This is why every media outlet needs to be prepared for the worst, and admit to any faults on their side – and, just to be safe, have a good PR strategy in case anything goes wrong.

Where do you think social media has left traditional news outlets? Let us know in the comments section below.

Want to stay up to date with the latest news? Subscribe to our newsletter.

Not all fake news is created equal – see if you recognise some of the different forms it can take in our article, Five types of fake news and how to spot them.
*Image courtesy of Vecteezy