The violent events of last Friday at the Beitbridge Border Post proved to me once again that while social media has gone mainstream in terms of usage it is still struggling to gain the necessary credibility and authority when serious news breaks.
In this case, I am referring to social media in the hands of the general user vs authoritative media users.
Despite so many Zimbabweans on social media, it took me longer than necessary to put together some credible detail concerning what was really taking place at the border.
I found myself repeatedly going to mainstream media hoping to find some credible reporting which could paint a more accurate picture of what was really going on.
I realized that going to these alternative “believable” sources effectively reduced the value of social media at that moment as I found myself in search of something written with authority with the help of trained eyes and ears.
Individuals in my social media circles on Facebook and WhatsApp, for example, were asking each other in peer to peer exchanges as well as group conversations if what was happening at the border was true and worth believing.
Often times it takes sifting through thick comment threads to try and corroborate the facts and this can be taxing especially when one is time bound and at the same time has vested interest in the news filtering through.
Friday’s events revealed that certain assumptions many may have held about social media are mistaken.
While it helps one quickly get a sense of what is going on through real-time news and propels the news to travel fast, for the most part I find social media news distorted, full of emotion and inevitably calling for independent verification usually from the same digital traditional media almost each time something serious happens.
I am doubtful if social media will ever be able to shrug off this handicap.
Whilst it’s good for democracy and access to information, the downside is that social media entrusts a level of sway with no real personal consequence to all kinds of individuals who hold a million different ways of interpreting and describing the same event.
This, in my view, is not convenient nor desirable when the event in question is of such great importance and requiring swift action, for example.
When it all began over a decade and a half ago, many thought the hegemony of traditional print media was gone. I agree, and we see that today. I, however, think it was doubtful then that digital traditional media would be killed by social media. I think this remains so.
If anything, we are actually in need of similarly faster but more accurate and credible traditional digital media to verify and corroborate public generated social media news.
This is arguably what has given rise to blogs that focus on social media round-ups. Such blogs attempt to make sense of social media on behalf of overwhelmed social media consumers.
My experience on Friday confirmed that social media news is more believable and useful when it originates and is confined to a small group of people who know each other and trust each other.
Once it exits the group, as it usually does, it sure gives a sense of what is going on, but it becomes risky to accept at face value.
The situation is not made any easier by the general proneness of social media users to making any day April Fools ’ Day. This also explains why seismic breaking news of a viral nature is usually accompanied by more questions than answers.
In other words, on social media often times one gets to be aware of certain developments through questions such as “Is it true that this is happening in Beitbridge?”
This in itself sets off a chain of similarly put exchanges in a viral manner. It appears the weightier the event, the more questions and less answers it generates.
A fuller and a more accurate picture often only emerges later often after it’s been corroborated by an authoritative source.
I wouldn’t raise my hand in support of the trashing of social media. What is needed is both social media and digital traditional media. Social media in the hands of a regular user badly lacks the credibility that would render traditional media useless.
image credit – Pindula