During an ethics discussion in my news writing class at Eastern Illinois University, my students expressed disgust with article sharing and retweeting on social media. They accurately noted that many people, including their friends and family, advocate for an issue or idea by reposting a piece of “journalistic” writing – without ever reading it or understanding its credibility themselves.
The Huffington Post, then, created a case in point last year with its article about how Bernie Sanders could take the U.S. presidency through a little-known loophole – which, by the way, doesn’t exist, as the article went on to report. Many people in my social media network shared the article, as well, becoming quite embarrassed that they had fallen for the ruse.
Becoming Meta-Cognitive About What’s News
As journalists and educators, we passionately emphasize the elements of newsworthiness and the need for verifiable sources, but in the social media (and sometimes mainstream media) paradigm, the urgency for credibility and fact-checking has fallen on deaf ears.
Sure, I wish the populace would just start caring more about “real” news and the nuanced complexities of local and national events on social media. But, that’s not where we are.
Where we are is in need of re-education and clear boundaries. We are functioning like impulsive pre-teens on the internet, and we need a bit of mentorship to find our way.
A best-case scenario would be to redesign social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter to display the original source of articles more prominently. That eight-point type in the left corner (in light gray, mind you) or the shrunken links that lead who-knows-where are not cutting it when compared to sensationalistic headlines and shocking images front and center. And, since we are in a perfect world, aggregators should have to trace back and more visibly document their sources, as well.
Indeed, several social media giants have recently become more malleable than ever, and Facebook is now acting, so there may be room for suggestions in the visual presentation of the source of information shared.
What Should We Do to Combat Bad Ethics?
However, fake news is not something that can be completely obliterated by an algorithm or even concerted effort. We, as journalists and journalism educators, – I’m also looking at you J-School students – should start a grassroots movement to change how we share information on social media platforms.
When we share articles or retweet, let’s include a short explanation of WHO it is from and WHY it is worth sharing, which will necessitate our own research and reflection. It’s too easy to pass on a headline to our unwitting audience without purpose or to become just another link in a very long chain that is disseminating misinformation.
Let’s model good social media behavior in our professional, educational and personal lives, so our middle school friends can see the path to start making good choices.
Amanda Bright is a former professional journalist who later spent a decade as a scholastic journalism adviser of both newspaper and yearbook at Mattoon High School in Illinois. Currently, Bright is a journalism instructor at Eastern Illinois University and the Media Content Coordinator for Indiana State University Online; she also serves as the Social Media Director and Web Co-Administrator for the Illinois Journalism Education Association.