The Role of Social Media in the News Cycle

Reddit and Twitter have become important parts of daily news as high-speed Internet has penetrated into our lives in the form of smartphones. News blogs like Gawker see enough power in these sites that there are now editors dedicated to reposting popular or viral posts from the site. While Reddit prides itself in being meritocratic and egalitarian about the content it pushes to the front page (users are called “Redditors”), analytics of the site show only a handful of users are responsible for the majority of content. Despite its ethos, Reddit sometimes performs much like the traditional news machine; few people in a large community produce most of the content.

Like any community, Redditors plays favorites with certain kinds of news stories and events. Coverage of certain companies, politics and religions are commonly featured on the front page. Reddit, while made up of many different types of people, still leans heavy on certain demographics. For example, until recently, Reddit automatically added the Atheism subreddit to a new user’s default list. As a result, there appears to be a dearth of complex criticism or opposition to contentious topics in the largest spheres of conversations. Debate subreddits exist, but one must actively seek them out. Generally, unpopular news events and stories tend to get buried into obscurity. Therefore, differing accounts or perspectives on news stories tend to get lost into digital abyss. Reddit is best for synthesizing what is popular on the Internet, not necessarily for hard news people may find boring enough to “downvote.”

Reddit truly shines as a part of the news cycle when notable people perform Ask Me Anything (AMA) posts. The questions (and answers) from these AMAs usually prove to be more candid and insightful than interviews in traditional media. If AMA interviewees prove to be shallow, or promote a new movie or book, the community tends to have a strong negative reaction. AMAs are most powerful when AMA answers become news stories themselves. For example, an actor may talk about an Internet meme that would otherwise be left out in a traditional medium.

Twitter has shown itself to be the quickest form of publishing information the world has ever seen. It has allowed for revolutions to foment and information to disseminate faster than in any other time in history. It isn’t just for sharing thoughts about daily minutia, as many of its detractors have said. However, this power comes at a price. The lack of real-name verification and editorial oversight can make susceptible to hoaxes and unverifiable information. People sometimes try to ride a breaking news hashtag to promote their own unrelated content, often cluttering vital information for others.

During breaking news events in major cities, Twitter becomes an invaluable tool for masses of people to share as much information as possible about something happening. The public may be able to see photos, audio and video from people on the ground, long before reporters can make it out to the scene. In 2009 in Iran, 2011 in Egypt and 2013 in Boston, people on Twitter were able to disseminate information faster than any news organization ever could. In the case of Iran, Twitter became the only means of information getting out of the country. However, information in these situations may lack certain important context. A photo may be cropped; a video shortened or an account fabricated. When these are reported as fact outright, or not vetted by other skeptical users, the social fabric of the site crumbles.

Reporters of traditional media have found use for Twitter. Small bits of information that aren’t printed or reporter, cell phone photos, videos and other information are used to add to events. Major news organizations use Twitter to publish links to stories, or to YouTube videos its editorial staff has vetted. As technology changes, Twitter will change along with it. It may be a vital source of information for many, but in the end it is still a business that’s beholden to its shareholders. The site may change its format, or Web users may force the site to go the way of MySpace or Bebo as something newer or shinier comes around. Until then, the site’s importance cannot be overstated.

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