The internet has revolutionized the way information is shared and consumed. The consequences have been both positive and negative, bringing forth a new set of challenges for the world.
First developed in the early 1960s, the internet eventually became mainstream in the mid-1990s. Google launched in 1998. Friendster, the first widely adopted social network, began in 2002, paving the way for more sites to come: MySpace, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, Snapchat and countless others.
The introduction of the internet and the rise of social media has been significant for news and information.
Where traditional news organizations were once the gatekeepers of information and the only ones with the resources to disseminate it — printing presses and TV stations are costly to purchase and operate — now anyone, anywhere could be a publisher.
This was widely viewed as the democratization of information, a development that could bring new voices into public discourse and offer tools that could lead to positive social change. For example, in 2010, the Arab Spring showed hope for new technologies to organize citizens into social movements to topple repressive regimes. Unfortunately, it did not last, partly because the other side learned to use the tools as well.
The transition to the internet as a primary news distribution channel has also changed the gatekeeper of information from humans to machines.
When news came only from or traditional or legacy media — newspapers, TV, and radio — there was always a human who stood between audiences and information, a person or process that filtered the stories or content, checked facts and packaged stories for public consumption.
On social media, algorithms (computer calculations) now sort through the content to decide what to show you based on your preferences. Algorithms prioritize posts that are popular, regardless of whether or not they are credible. The information posted on social media is designed to make people want to read or view it, and share it – meaning it targets your emotions or aims to elicit a response (e.g., happiness, anger).
Social media platforms are free because they make money by growing engagement – increasing the number of users, holding our attention, and selling access to our attention to advertisers. It’s the same model pioneered by newspapers 200 years ago, but it is more complex in a technological environment. The difference is that the advertising is targeted, based on who you are and your preferences, increasing the likelihood that the ads will be successful. People leave more data behind than they realize, through every action they take on a site.
Since people have become such heavy adopters of social media, they now rely on these sites for news. The problem is that social media platforms never intended to be news organizations, and there are consequences for informed citizenship when people rely on friends and algorithms to find out about what is happening in the world.