Maria Gutzeit | Social Media a Poor Choice for Information

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Congratulations! You are reading this in the No. 1 source of local news, according to past polling of local residents. That’s a good start, because reliable sources of news (especially community news) can be hard to come by. Social media seems handy, especially for lost dogs, back-to-school photos and event invites, but it’s downright flawed for reliable news.

In 2017, the Pew Research Center found more than two-thirds of American adults get at least some of their news from social media. That’s not good, because news that is literally fake (according to legitimate fact-checking organizations) gets shared faster and more broadly than accurate news, according to an MIT study profiled by Robinson Meyer in the Atlantic in March 2018. Meyer writes, “A false story reaches 1,500 people six times quicker, on average, than a true story does. And while false stories outperform the truth on every subject — including business, terrorism and war, science and technology, and entertainment—fake news about politics regularly does best. Twitter users seem almost to prefer sharing falsehoods. Even when the researchers controlled for every difference between the accounts originating rumors — like whether that person had more followers or was verified — falsehoods were still 70 percent more likely to get retweeted than accurate news.”

It’s not just the sharing of false stories that sucks the value out of social media. Commenters themselves can get things really wrong. Business closing! Oops, when that is wrong, pity the poor business owner who just shut down for vacation. Mountain Lion! Oops, that picture is a bobcat. Giant fire in Newhall? Oops, actually Castaic. There are the lengthy threads of comments insisting we are out of water right now, when publicly available documents show details for sufficient supply for 30 years’ worth of growth. Most troubling are some overseas incidents where mobs acted on WhatsApp posts in India and Mexico. In multiple cases, innocent people were violently killed based on false information spread through social media, and despite official warnings that the social media posts were not true. The harm from unfiltered misinformation is starting to outweigh the benefits of easy information sharing.  Even if the original intent of sharing isn’t malicious, there’s a cost to spreading lies, whether it be an ill-informed populace, bullied teens, damaged businesses, or lost lives. We need to control ourselves, or hope this mode of media moves on.

As pointed out in one of my favorite books, Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World by Hans Rosling, our ability to judge information has not kept pace with the amount of information that is available to us.

Rosling outlines many ways to ascertain the actual importance of news, like looking at the underlying numbers. He also highlights the lag between what we are taught — which was probably accurate decades ago — and what is happening now.

For instance, the news of the summer was the separation of children and their parents at border crossings. We saw prototypes of the proposed new border wall. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program was in the news regularly, as were deportations to Mexico and South America. Compelling, yes. Does that mesh with the fact that the fastest-rising immigrant group in the United States is from Asia? No.

Pew Research reports that Asian arrivals have exceeded Hispanic arrivals since 2010. The Washington Post reported in 2017 that Asians are the “fastest-growing group of undocumented immigrants.” 

Not quite what you’d gather from glancing at your average social media debate on immigration issues.

It can be tiring to feel like you have to fact check everything. One easy solution is to sign up for news directly from sources of interest, like Nixle for Sheriff’s Department information, or InciWeb for fires, and your local school district for school issues.

Even better is an amazing, cheap, and little-used tool: the telephone. If you have a question, especially about a local issue, pick up the phone. Call staff people who know what is actually going on, and ask them your questions, rather than armchair experts on Facebook. If you get stuck, a call to your local elected officials or the head of a department (like Public Works or Neighborhood Services) will help get you unstuck and on your way to someone who can give you the right details. 

If you want entertainment and angst, stick with social media. If you want to know what’s going on, there are far better ways.

Maria Gutzeit is a chemical engineer, business owner, elected official, and mom living in Santa Clarita. “Democratic Voices” appears Tuesdays and rotates among several local Democrats.

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