College Student’s Perception of Social Media News Validity

By Bridget Englebrecht, Cynthia Landa, Gianna Horvath, Crystal Ramirez

Maryanne Shults is a professor here at Cal State Fullerton in the communications department. She teaches many classes regarding the importance of media literacy and journalism. She is also a freelance journalist currently working with local fire authorities to update people in the surrounding areas about nearby fires through social media. Her experience working in journalism helps her give her students a better understanding of what it means to be an effective communicator and help build their media literacy skills. 

“Fake News” is a term that has been used in recent years in regards to the spread of misinformation through media. “Fake News” has been a hot topic as it concerns all media consumers and the trust citizens have in the news they receive. Besides mainstream media outlets, social media is also a major contributor to the spread of misinformation. Posters on social media are not held to the same journalistic standards as major news outlets and can post whatever they want regardless of the facts. College students are known for being some of the biggest consumers of social media and spend much of their free time scrolling through different sites. Unsurprisingly, most of the news they receive comes from social media as well. Rates of misinformation online have likely never been higher due to the COVID 19 pandemic and the political unease of recent times. Our study aims to evaluate how trusting college students are of the information they receive online in regards to current affairs. We interviewed professor Maryanne Shults about how social media influences college students’ perceptions of the news they receive.

The importance of Media Literacy

In professor Shults’ experience teaching journalism, she has found the majority of her students are receiving their news through social media. While she finds there is not an inherent problem with this form of information seeking, there is a problem with the level of media literacy students come to her with. To be media literate is having the ability to decode media messages and assess the influence those messages have on us at the personal and societal levels. Knowing how to distinguish fact from fiction is not an innate understanding and it must be taught. We discussed the importance of teaching media literacy to students as early as elementary school. While the spread of misinformation by individuals online is harmful, it is often not intentionally malicious. The average social media poster may not have the necessary education to differentiate between what is real and what is fictitious. If everyone was taught how to examine media before the collegiate level, many people on social media would have a better ability to discern between valid and invalid information. In Professor Shults’ Communications 101: Writing for the Mass Media class, she assigns a fake news quiz to her students to test their ability to determine real news from fake news. This quiz is harder than it looks as even real news can be fairly outrageous. This quiz highlights the importance of fact-checking and not believing everything that is posted online. 

How Information becomes misconstrued online

Professor Shuts compared social media to a game she used to play in Girl Scouts, Telephone. The game starts with one person whispering a phrase or sentence to another person. The second person continues passing the message down the line until it reaches the final person. By the last person in line, the message has been so jumbled, it has lost all the meaning it once had. She said this is often how misinformation spreads. The original piece of information becomes distorted as it is shared again and again. By the time a fact or a news story becomes “viral,” many pieces of the story have been lost or fabricated. While the spread of misinformation may not always be intentional, the repercussions are often detrimental to social media users. 

The Ethics of Algorithms

Facebook has been facing severe legal trouble recently for many reasons. One reason is their algorithm’s purposeful spread of sensationalized information to drive engagement. We asked Professor Shults’ opinion of algorithms and how she thinks they are affecting the news we see on social media. She said that the main intent of algorithms is marketing. While Facebook is known for being a platform to connect with friends, its main goal is advertising. Since more advertising means more money in Facebook’s pocket, they created specific algorithms to keep their users engaged as long as possible. These algorithms are very good at getting to know their user and what the user engages with. The algorithm will show users content that aligns with their interests to the point that they will only see content that aligns with what they want to see. This creates a massive problem with confirmation bias as users only see news that coincides with their own personal views. Confirmation bias is the tendency to seek out information that confirms existing beliefs. Professor Shults explained how entertainment and news seeking have become one and the same. On social media, news and entertainment exist in the exact same space, making misinformation even harder to distinguish. Algorithms also present actual news and content posted by an ordinary user in the same way. Should social media users be responsible for fact-checking everything they see? It would be easy to argue that these platforms should take on some of the fact-checking responsibility that they are currently putting on their users who may or may not be media literate.

How COVID 19 has fueled distrust

COVID 19 has been a huge factor in the spread of misinformation online. When COVID was first emerging as an imminent threat, the general public was panic-stricken by the uncertainty of the virus. This fear manifested itself on social media as conspiracies, violence, and outrage. Professor Shults spoke about how social media during the pandemic has drawn division lines even within her own family. The pandemic has proven just how dangerous the spread of misinformation is. The perpetuation of inaccurate information on social media has led people to dangerous actions that have resulted in real-world harm. Professor Shults touched on the 2016 and 2020 elections as turning points in the conversations about misinformation online. Former President Donald Trump was notorious for fueling the spread of misinformation online. President Trump utilized social media to perpetuate his own agenda, often disregarding the well-being of American citizens. The First Amendment right of freedom of speech and social media are very closely linked in the minds of Americans. Being able to have a voice in political discourse is important, but this freedom comes at a cost. Throughout this pandemic, social media has been used as a tool to perpetuate misinformation, fuel violence, and cause severe consequences in real life. 

Tips for examining news on social media

When consuming social media, Professor Shults says it is important to differentiate between entertainment and fact. She suggests social media users not get their news in the same place they go to be entertained. As communications majors, it is our duty to use our media literacy skills to question the news we see when scrolling through social media. It is important to find trustworthy sources for news and consume news actively rather than passively. The active consumption of news to intentionally stay up to date is an important part of being media literate. People have always been critical of their news sources and college students today should do the same. Remember to fact-check before you share and never take what you see on social media at face value. 

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