In today’s society almost every individual, business, organisation and publication have a presence on one of the many social media networks available to us. Over the past few years we have turned into a race of facebookers, tweeters and bloggers, obsessed with documenting every moment of our lives – from checking into our local coffee house to tweeting about the birth of our children. In a recent infographic posted on the social media news site Mashable, it is recorded that facebook users share 684,478 pieces of content, twitter users send 100,000 tweets and YouTube users upload 48 hours of video footage every minute of the day.
But how much of this user generated content can be really classed as ‘newsworthy’ and how much should we listen to the news on our newsfeeds?
A recent example of social media shaping the news took place when the NatWest bank experienced technical difficulties resulting in a large number of their customers being unable to access the funds in their accounts. A decade ago if this situation were to happen, people would reach for the phone, dial the call centre and make a complaint. However, this time around people took to twitter, bombarding the NatWest Twitter account with their questions (almost all of which were followed by the hashtag #NatwestFail). In under an hour the term ‘NatWest’ was trending on Twitter as a large population of the UK, myself included, were expressing their frustration. It didn’t take long before news sources such as the BBC picked up on this story and began to tell everyone else what was going on.
It’s not just the failure of a bank branch which was first heard about on Twitter either. The death of singing superstar Whitney Houston first broke on Twitter 27 minutes before being picked up by any news channel, which just goes to show the power of those 140 characters.
… are we prepared to deal with a potentially earth shattering news story which could cause alarm and panic, then turns out to be false?
As we move into a more technological world with social media at our fingertips, it is clear that people rely on their social media newsfeeds more and more for breaking news rather than traditional publications. It’s also important to notice that even journalists are beginning to harness the power of social media; breaking news to their followers first and worrying about an article later.
But is there a danger lurking beneath all of the sharing, retweeting and networking? For example, the number of celebrities who have been supposedly reported as ‘dead’ on Twitter ranges from Morgan Freeman to Harrison Ford, Natalie Portman to Jeff Goldblum and is continuing to grow. Even though these instances can be amusing (although Bill Cosby didn’t find it funny when he heard about his own death) are we prepared to deal with a potentially earth shattering news story which could cause alarm and panic, then turns out to be false? Just imagine what would have happened if 9/11 had turned out to be a twitter user who had got it wrong. I, for one, think that people would not be as reliant on social media for their breaking news as they are today.
Social media is a powerful thing and effects us and the world around us more than we know. As the networks continue to grow, as users keep posting their content the danger of false reports grows higher. However, will we ever return to a world where we check a publication’s website before their twitter feed? Maybe not. But hopefully we will start to remember that not everything in those 140 characters is always necessarily true.