“Kate, this isn’t real,” Mr. Belbin, my 9th grade government teacher said, dtriggling to suppress a smirk.
“But… I found it online. On one of those internet newspapers!” I frowned.
“‘The Onion’ isn’t real news. It’s a joke,” he replied, patiently.
In 1998, the World Wide Web was rapidly changing the way that people read and received their news. Decades later, it sounds impossible to believe, but I honestly thought that those stories in “The Onion” were real.
Mr. Belbin, my 9th grade government teacher, took a stand. He worked hard to teach us about the importance of sorting through sources to find well-researched and credible websites. Then, he taught us about the importance of the media in a democratic republic. I learned the value of free, accessible information and the value of informing citizens to help them make good decisions when voting.
Today, I’m not entirely sure that our media is free and open. In fact, Mr. Belbin, or any Social Studies teacher, could talk for hours about the way that the media has been censored throughout the last century. Some great examples date back to Vietnam… but let’s not get too wrapped up in that. (Ok, wait, have you seen Newsroom?! 5 great seasons of an HBO drama about how censorship and the news media are threatening the democratic republic of America today.)
People don’t watch the news. They don’t even really read it in print or online.
Many Americans get their news from… facebook.
A well developed research study concludes that 68% of Americans regularly engage in Facebook, and 55% of these people are regularly reading and posting about “the news.” Here’s where it gets fascinating. Or scary.
Only 16% of the people interacting about the news are sharing their opinions on the topic, or adding any original thought. The other 84% are just re-posting what they read.
But people aren’t really reading articles before they post them.Think about it. How many people bother to actually check the facts of what they’re reading?
My facebook feed is flooded with misinformation from well-intentioned friends. There’s a picture of a check supposedly written using common core math, warnings about facebook privacy, and then there was that Photo-Shopped picture of the Pope checking out some girl’s boobs…
People often comment on posts without reading the entire article. They re-post articles without checking the dates, or bothering to see if the article is from a reliable source. There’s an entire website, Snopes, out there, maintaining an up-to-date database of misinformation that is continually posted on facebook.
I wonder what Mr. Belbin does when he looks at his facebook feed. As a middle school teacher, I have to be honest- I sometimes cringe.
But, here’s what’s keeping me up at night: how is Facebook going to impact the next presidential election?
If people don’t watch the debate, or read up on the candidates, are they just going to check their newsfeeds to see what articles their friends are re-posting? Will people begin to really read the articles before re-posting the pictures themselves?
My gut tells me that the answers to these questions isn’t what Mr. Belbin would hope for. Instead, in the words of my favorite Social Studies teacher, we’re becoming a Plutorchy, where the loudest, richest voices are the only ones that are really heard.
“Down with democracy!” shout the crowds. “GIVE US FACEBOOK.”