Social media has become our new playground. In just over a decade, we’ve transformed into a digitized citizenship, using the latest smartphone to connect to friends or to post our latest selfie — a self-portrait photograph typically taken with the purpose to show off our facial features (sometimes including a friend or group) to the world-at-large.
Texting and sending photos to friends and acquaintances, however, is just the start of this new information revolution.
So what is social media?
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the definition of social media is any “form of electronic communication through which users create online communities to share information, ideas, personal messages and other content.”
The term “social media” was first introduced into our lexicon in 2004, and since then has fragmented into various forms of social media platforms that include shared interests and hobbies.
These platforms include Instagram, a photo and video-sharing platform; Flickr, an online site that provides a worldwide photo-related sharing exchange; Linkedin, a business-oriented social networking site; Pinterest, a virtual pin board for organizing and sharing things that people love and many more, including Twitter, an online news and social networking service where users post and interact with messages, or “tweets” restricted to 140 characters, which President Donald Trump is particularly fond of using on an almost daily basis.
There are online sites dedicated to science enthusiasts, conspiracy theorists, outlets for bloggers, authors, Gothic subculture, history buffs, or social networks that focus heavily on artists, including musicians and photographers, as well as sites offering collaborative video play, even sites for live chat and video streaming.
The only social media I’m personally familiar with is Facebook, which I joined in 2010 after a friend all but insisted that I do so.
Worldwide, there are over 1.79 billion monthly active Facebook subscribers, according to the company.
There are any number of positive and negative opinions regarding the use of social media.
On the pro side: Millions of Americans gather information from people in their social networks dealing with helping to solve major issues, like changing jobs, finding a new place to live or caring for someone with an illness. People can connect with friends and/or experts who can assist them in making difficult life-changing decisions.
Social networking sites bring people with common interests together. Students access the Internet to use social networking sites to discuss educational topics including career and college planning, or to find tutors to help them with school assignments.
Another positive aspect of using social media is to explore, exchange and argue different ideas with people who have different opinions than you.
Social networking allows friends, both new and old, to maintain contact, even when living great distances from one another, similar in purpose to the lost art of letter writing, but with memes and video.
But with the good comes the bad, such as making people feel bad about themselves through cyber bullying and spreading rumors, inappropriate postings and stalking people; either virtually or in the real world.
Some studies claim that the overuse of social networking sites can cause personality and brain disorders in children, such as the inability to have real conversations, limited attention spans, a need for instant gratification and self-centered personalities.
Social networking sites have no way to verify that people are who they claim to be, leaving people vulnerable to solicitations from online predators who are able to mask their true identities.
Even more insidious is the proliferation of fake news or as it used to be called: propaganda. This is by no means a new phenomenon.
According to Wikipedia, by 1900 many major newspapers had become profitable powerhouses of advocacy, muckraking and sensationalism, only later morphing into serious, objective newsgathering.
Quoting Lee H. Hamilton, a senior advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government, and a recent contributor to Feather Publishing: “Purveyors of fake news get paid to mislead the public,” adding, however, that “responsible media outlets are increasingly finding ways to counteract it.”
Facebook and other social media sites have recognized their obligation to fight fake news without compromising access to authentic news reporting and sincere opinion pieces, Hamilton noted.
The danger of fake news is especially evident in the political realm, where voters make decisions on candidates based more and more on what they read in social media circles, replete with political spin doctors and sometimes unwelcome influences from foreign governments.
Fortunately, nonpartisan online fact-checking sites that help you distinguish fact from fiction and media bias have arisen alongside the phenomenon of fake news to keep politicians and media sources honest, including such sites as Snopes.com, Hoax-Slayer.com, Politifact.com, FactCheck.org and several others.
The first article of the U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of the press. But along with that freedom is the need for a well-informed citizenry making sound judgments based on accurate information. This has become more of a challenge in the modern age with hundreds of online sources competing for our attention, and all claiming a monopoly on truth.
The antidote to falling for fake news is due diligence, a healthy degree of skepticism, and checking that information that you rely on comes from multiple reputable sources.