Social Media Sucks for Reporting News

What’s happening at all the George Floyd protests around the country? How many people are showing up? What are the demographics? How many cops are there? Which community organizations are involved? Are local elected officials helping or hurting? Who really broke that window or set that fire? What about these reports of incitement by white supremacists?

Mainstream media doesn’t answer all these questions. They frame everything so narrowly, with an inevitable pro-establishment bias, even when their own reporters are mistreated. Trying to sift out the facts from the spin is a challenge, especially if the media you’re reading is local to someplace you’ve never been. You never know what they’re leaving out.

It’s not like reporters are smarter than other people, wither. These days, it’s more about who could afford journalism school. Plus, 40% of all newsroom jobs in the US have been eliminated since the year 2000. The resources simply don’t exist to provide good coverage.

But what about social media? People are posting all sorts of pictures and videos and rants! Yes, they are. However, wading through all of the posts, status updates and tweets trying to find the Who, What, When, Where and Why is not only time-consuming and frustrating but rarely effective for assembling a picture that’s anything like complete.

True, one will get an impression of events, but this is primarily emotional rather than factual. I’m not dismissing emotion; just recognizing it’s not enough by itself.

After scrolling through social media trying to follow the current events, I often end up feeling waves of depression, rage, and helplessness with a sprinkling of hope (probably false). And with no clear sense of what actually happened. So much is illusion, so it’s easy to find oneself in delusion. I see why the ludicrous conspiracy theories thrive in that environment, as well as the silly misunderstandings, the petty us vs. them thinking, and the irrational adolescent outbursts.

Was social media effective in spreading the initial news about George Floyd’s death? Yes, absolutely. But for documenting the reaction, which is a complex set of events with a multitude of actors, not so much.

The form of social media does not lend itself to telling a coherent collective story. Rather, it’s focused on the individual experience in an essentially stand-alone form, #hashtags notwithstanding.

Everything you see on social media disappears soon after you’ve seen it. Have you ever tried to find something you saw yesterday or last week? It can be functionally impossible. Trying to go deep with anything on social media is like trying to dig a hole from a moving vehicle. You’ll never get more than one shallow scoop from any particular spot, and then zip! you’re somewhere else.

This is how social media is designed. The endless timelines and the dopamine rewards from reactions keep you endlessly scrolling while they harvest the data about you that is their true product. The motive is to make profit, not to inform or inspire. Any good it happens to do, like spreading word of an injustice, is an unintended side effect.

Then there’s the censorship, of course. All the social media giants do it, often with algorithms. Like mainstream media, their bias is in favor of the establishment, and they’re only too happy to shave off the margins, a little at a time. If Zuck decides it’s best for him to go along with Trump’s anti-Antifa rhetoric, you can bet a lot of activist content would be gone in an instant.

Once upon a time, we had an awesome tool for street reporting, which was designed to inform and inspire, and that was Popularized during the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999, it rapidly expanded into a global network that, briefly, democratized journalism. (See “The Seattle WTO Uprising & the Indymedia Movement, Twenty Years Later.”)

Anyone could post text and images—and later, audio and video—for the world to see. Each local network had its own website and its own groups of editors who could consolidate individual stories into coherent narratives. This was before social media, and before blogs, when it was challenging for an individual to publish on the internet. It’s quite an intriguing detail of internet history that it was first the anarchists, not the capitalists, who opened this door to the public.

For breaking news like street actions, there had never been a better internet tool than Indymedia, and there hasn’t been a better one since.

But as first blogs and then social media emerged, Indymedia’s popularity faltered and sank. These new inventions offered the same functionality—self-publishing multimedia—but added to the mix the intentional feeding of narcissistic impulses. Indymedia was a place to share, and social media a place to show off. Self-absorbtion won out.

So here we are, with what feels like an historic uprising raging around the country, but who knows what’s happening. I interviewed people in Portland and Chicago about the protests there for my podcast, and learned far more in those two conversations than in days of scrolling. But I still want to know what’s going down in the Twin Cities, where—ironically—I helped start the local Indymedia site back in the day, but it’s been shuttered for years.

We’re living in very interesting times that are bound to get more interesting. How are we going to inform ourselves? I don’t know. Indymedia had it’s moment and it’s not coming back. Social media is the beast we’re stuck with but it’s a poor tool for the job and it’s not on our side. We need something new to happen.

Kollibri terre Sonnenblume is a writer living on the West Coast of the U.S.A. More of Kollibri’s writing and photos can be found at Macska Moksha Press