TOPIC GUIDE: Social media

"Social media improves our understanding of major world events"

PUBLISHED: 01 Aug 2013

AUTHOR: Tim Black & Ed Noel

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Referred to by some scholars as the “fourth revolution” in communication (thus equated with the arrival of language, writing, and the printing press) it is claimed that the internet has the potential to fundamentally alter the spreading of news and information in contemporary society [Ref: eprints]. Today, this seems especially apt where social media, from blogs to Facebook and Twitter, is playing an ever more prominent role in our understanding of world events. The public no longer has to rely on traditional news outlets for reportage and commentary. Instead, everyone and anyone can be a de facto journalist. Videos and images of incidents can be uploaded instantly; commentary on a protest can be tweeted as it happens. It isn’t simply the speed in which we consume news which has changed; the amount of blogs providing commentary and leaks has also proliferated. Anyone with an internet connection can let millions of others know their particular take on an issue or event.  Does this hinder or improve our understanding of events?

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This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.

The democratisation of the media
There is certainly no doubting the ubiquity of social-media technology, be it the advent of the smart phone or the emergence of social networks like Twitter or WordPress. In the words of one academic, it has allowed ‘anyone to become a journalist at little cost… Nothing like this has ever been remotely possible before’ [Ref: American Journalism Review]. For many, this is a positive development. It means that we do not have to rely solely on big media companies to interpret the world for us; we can use other sources, other commentators, and even make the news ourselves. As a result, our understanding of world events potentially deepens. As one social media advocate explains, if a particular media outlet is considered untrustworthy, people can now go elsewhere: ‘What’s more, they could stop being passive recipients’ [Ref: Nieman Reports]. During the Turkish protests #BugünTelevizyonlariKapat (Turn off your TV Today), began trending on Twitter, reflecting widespread distrust with the information mainstream media outlets were propagating [Ref: New Internationalist]. As one blogger argues: ‘The notion of political commentary as a few-to-many exercise, produced by highly paid elites and policed by big business, has been shattered beyond repair’ [Ref: New Statesman]. Questions remain about the extent to which social media offers the opportunity to develop a greater understanding of important events. Gauging public opinion on twitter has become a regular feature of news reporting; an acknowledgment perhaps, that this new forum is important when digesting current affairs. The Arab Spring, in particular, was heralded as the democratisation of the media - it wasn’t professional journalists spreading the news about Tunisia, Bahrain and Egypt, it was ordinary citizens armed with little more than access to a social network. One citizen journalist, convinced of the capacity for social media to enlighten, argued that during the Arab Spring, social media became a place ‘to shape and discuss articles of the constitution, build mass awareness campaigns, and have entire Facebook-based news agencies with millions of worldwide subscribers’ [Ref: The European]. Others were less convinced of social media’s political role [Ref: Huffington Post].

A medium for falsehood
Discussing the rise of citizen journalism, the Economist notes that the use of social media in reporting world events has done away with editors and highlighted precisely why they are necessary [Ref: Economist]. In the absence of editorial standards, social media allows half-truths, conspiracy theories and wild rumours to flourish. Hyunjin Seo, a Kansas University professor of journalism, even calls social media ‘an amplifier of misinformation’ [Ref: Topeka-Capital Journal]. Another writer describes its effects as playing to our desire to feel good ‘in return for not doing very much’, creating a situation where: ‘Facts get lost, vanity goes viral’ [Ref: Independent]. Though mainstream news outlets can use social media for leads, trawling through the scale of information is a gargantuan task [Ref: BBC News]. The example of tweets by “Boya Dee”, immediately after the Woolwich attacks in south London, illustrate how social media can beat mainstream outlets to the story, though the extent to which this ensures reliable information is questionable [Ref: The Week]. This problem, evident in the Boston Bombings where Reddit users were scouring relevant photos looking to identify the bombers, resulted in several people being misidentified as the culprits [Ref: Wired]. Even US president Barack Obama felt it necessary to warn against ‘jumping to conclusions’ ‘in this age of instant reporting, tweets and blogs’ [Ref: Huffington Post]. As one commentator complained, ‘We have more information, but it’s a morass of truths, half-truths, and what we used to call libel. It’s fast, but it’s bad. And bad information is a cancer that just keeps growing.’ Even the social media coverage of the Arab Spring was criticised for exaggeration and inaccuracy. Marc Lynch, in particular, criticised the hype and mistruths peddled during the Egyptian uprising. ‘I still remember the first time I was driving around a perfectly calm, absolutely normal Cairo’, he writes, ‘while reading a Twitter feed describing apocalyptic clashes and mayhem’ [Ref: Foreign Policy]. Worst of all, the potential speed in which social media can report world events gives a dangerous competition to mainstream media outlets, creating an incentive for journalistic standards to slip, as they did with numerous false reports of Nelson Mandela’s death [Ref: International Business Times].

A deeper understanding?
Some suggest that social media has the capacity to improve our understanding of world events by raising awareness of events and stories that other mainstream outlets have ignored. A well-known example of this was the Kony 2012 video, which attempted to focus public attention on the use of child soldiers by Uganda’s Joseph Kony in his paramilitary group, the Lord’s Resistance Army. Some have sought to praise this style of campaigning journalism: ‘The millions who watched the “Kony 2012” video — and donated or contacted a legislator — acting individually and however naïvely, might collectively force some big decisions’ [Ref: New York Times]. However, the backlash against the Kony campaign by mainstream media outlets, and its subsequent demise, raise important questions about the dangers of the partial take on events promoted by such campaigns. Arguably the shift away from reliable media outlets to social media, especially blogs, jeopardises our access to reliable facts. Traditional media outlets “can fund in-depth reporting and research. They can underwrite projects that can take months or years to reach fruition… They can employ editors and proofreaders and other unsung protectors of quality work” [Ref: Rough Type]. None of this is possible with a simple blog, and their lack of accountability frequently leads to neglect of basic journalistic standards like verification of sources [Ref: Wordpress]. It is also questionable whether a medium in which acts of “trolling” fellow users, public figures and celebrities is consistent with producing accurate, reliable information. As one academic puts it, ‘the anonymity and dynamic, playful quality of the [internet] has a powerful disinhibiting effect on behaviour’ and therefore it may not be one conducive to developing a considered understanding of any unfolding events [Ref: Independent]. Others warn of a stifling conformity on Twitter which drowns out discussion on certain issues once the ‘collective spite and collective bile’ of a Twittermob is unleashed [Ref: Telegraph].


It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.

Why is Twitter on trial? *innocent face*

Rachel Sylvester The Times 13 November 2012

When Everyone’s a Journalist

Carl Sessions Stepp American Journalism Review December 2005


It’s time for the FBI to prosecute Gamergate trolls

Brianna Wu Daily Dot 12 March 2015

Online bullying isn’t freedom of speech

Laurie Penny Al Jazeera 22 February 2014

The Phone Is Mightier Than the Sword

Sahar el-Nadi European 26 January 2013

Taking power through technology in the Arab Spring

Ramesh Srinivasan Al Jazeera 26 October 2012

The rise of citizen photojournalism

Dan Gillmoor Al Jazeera 15 March 2011

Welcome to the fifth estate

Laurie Penny New Statesman 22 June 2010


Why has the Guardian declared war on internet freedom?

Brendan O'Neill spiked 14 April 2016

Is the internet evolving away from freedom of speech?

Kalev Leetaru Forbes 15 January 2016

Social media as confusing as helpful in crisis situations

Alex Dingman Topeka-Capital Journal 22 April 2013

Twitter Devolutions

Marc Lynch Foreign Policy 7 February 2013

What are we losing in the Web’s images of suffering and schadenfreude?

Philip Kennicott Washington Post 27 December 2012

Why is Blogging Bad for Journalism?

Whose News? 16 January 2010

Newspapers vs. Bloggers: The New News Process

Jeff Jarvis Seeking Alpha 8 June 2009


Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.


Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.

I don’t fear the trolls - I enjoy their absurdities

Lucy Worsley Telegraph 13 April 2016

What is the best way to stop internet trolls?

Chris Baraniuk BBC News 21 March 2016

Receiving online abuse has now become a badge of honour

Douglas Murray Spectator 2 March 2016

In the age of ISIS, will you lose freedoms of Arab Spring?

Rebecca MacKinnon CNN 25 January 2016

Twitter tackles the free speech conundrum

Emily Bell Guardian 10 January 2016

Why Facebook needs to do more to protect you from online abuse

Fiona R. Martin & Jonathon Hutchinson The Conversation 17 September 2015

Controversial cyberbullying law passes

Nicholas Jones New Zealand Herald 30 June 2015

What is #Gamergate and why are women being threatened about video games?

Eliana Dockterman Time Magazine 16 October 2014

Social Media’s Role in Turkey’s Dissent

Karin Alexander New Internationalist 4 July 2013

Social Media’s Rush To Judgment In The Boston Bombings

Steve Henn National Public Radio 23 April 2013

What the Boston bombings taught me about journalism

Chris Cillizza Washington Post 19 April 2013

How Social Media Affected Newtown Coverage

New York Times 17 December 2012

Citizen Journalism is Reshaping the World

TEDxTalks 17 December 2012

Involving the police is not the way to teach trolls a lesson

Robert Sharp New Statesman 31 July 2012

A Video Campaign and the Power of Simplicity

Noam Cohen New York Times 11 March 2012

A Twitter Revolution for Journalists

Joel Simon Huffington Post 14 February 2012

Citizen Journalism Paves the Way in Egypt

Pulitzer Centre 16 November 2011

Digital first: what it means for journalism

Jeff Jarvis Guardian 26 June 2011

Is Egypt about to have a Facebook revoltuion?

Abigail Hauslohner TIME 24 January 2011

Authentic journalism: weapon of the people

Al Giordano openDemocracy 19 November 2010

The Amorality of Web 2.0

Rough Type 3 October 2005


Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.


Relevant recent news stories from a variety of sources, which ensure students have an up to date awareness of the state of the debate.

England riots: Dangers behind false rumours

BBC News 20 September 2011


The morality of the imagination

Moral Maze BBC Radio 4 7 March 2015

Social Media’s Rush To Judgment In The Boston Bombings

Steve Henn National Public Radio 23 April 2013

How Social Media Affected Newtown Coverage

New York Times 17 December 2012

Citizen Journalism is Reshaping the World

TEDxTalks 17 December 2012

The moral code of social media

Moral Maze BBC Radio 4 17 November 2012

Morality on social networks

Moral Maze BBC Radio 4 31 March 2012

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