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It is vital to be able to 'read' social media

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Two people lookign at laptop computer. Image: Brooke Cagle/Unsplash

In an era when misinformation and "fake news" abound on social media, it is important to understand where people get their news.

Democratic participation and accountable government rest on informed and balanced opinion that is transparent about its motivations and sources. Independent journalism -- print, broadcast or online -- has traditionally been a valued source of information and debate about political, social and cultural life.

It is worrying, therefore, that a recent report by the United Kingdom's media regulator Ofcom indicates that young people in Britain have almost entirely abandoned television news broadcasts, while half of the country now gets its news from social media.

According to a story in The Guardian newspaper -- itself one of the bastions of democratic accountability -- "While the average person aged 65 and over watches 33 minutes of TV news a day, this falls to just two minutes among people aged 16-24, according the media regulator's annual news consumption report."

The decline has been driven by audiences moving away from traditional live broadcast channels, where they might watch a popular drama and leave the channel on during the evening news bulletin, towards watching content from streaming services. This also supposes that people no longer intentionally watch or listen to the news to find out what is happening in the world.

Ofcom says:

"The most popular news source in Britain remains BBC One -- consulted by 58 per cent of the public -- followed by ITV on 40 per cent and Facebook on 35 per cent. The increase in people turning to social media for news is being driven by the growing popularity of WhatsApp and Instagram as information sources."

The situation is mirrored in Canada, where nearly seven out of 10 Canadian millennials get their news from social media, according to a poll commissioned by the Canadian Journalism Foundation in spring 2019. But while it has become a common source of news, less than four in 10 trust it, according to the pollster Maru/Matchbox.

Social media avoid in-depth reporting. In addition, the information and news carried by social media have been shown to be suspect, requiring careful thought. If young people are turning to social media in place of more reliable sources -- presumably under the influence of pernicious campaigns by political leaders accusing the media of bias or of lying -- it may compromise their ability to understand and participate in political change.

Genuine social progress depends on accessible, affordable and inclusive media infrastructures -- including traditional media, digital platforms, social media and the internet. It also depends on trustworthy information and knowledge. In this case, media literacy, being able to sift and assess sources, is vital if society is not to sink into a morass of lies and suspicion.

 Philip Lee is WACC general secretary and editor of its international journal Media Development. His edited publications include The Democratization of Communication (1995), Many Voices, One Vision: The Right to Communicate in Practice (2004); Communicating Peace: Entertaining Angels Unawares (2008); and Public Memory, Public Media, and the Politics of Justice (ed. with Pradip N. Thomas) (2012).

WACC Global is an international NGO that promotes communication as a basic human right, essential to people's dignity and community. It is a member of the ACT Alliance. 

Image: Brooke Cagle/Unsplash

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