Social media: Breaking the news flow or strengthening the status-quo

An illustration image shows a phone screen with the "Facebook" logo and Australian newspapers in Canberra, Australia, February 18, 2021Reuters

When broadcast media first emerged close to a century ago, the flow of news was linear. A television or radio station funded and controlled by the government would decide what was news and it would disseminate it to the people.

Things began to change when privately owned media started popping up. In some countries, mostly in Europe, governments also began giving the media more freedom to decide what was newsworthy, and even criticise the people in power, albeit in an innocuous manner.

Still, the news flow mostly remained linear as in this media landscape, it was the media owners who decided what the mainstream should be and what the people need to know.

From a government propaganda tool, the broadcast media became a mode for the media tycoons to serve their economic, ideological and political interests.

But in the last two decades or so, the emergence of social media has disrupted this linear news flow, at least that’s what it looks like from the surface.

Now, thanks to different social media platforms, many independent organisations and sometimes just one individual, can attract more eyeballs for their content than proper news organisations who have been in operation for decades.

But just because the audience now has a more diverse range of sources for information, doesn’t mean the linear flow of global news has changed.

The ‘West’ is still at the top of the news flow diagram and the western ideology is dictating how the entire world judges itself. Social media has the potential to end this tyranny of thoughts and ideology, but so far, that potential has remained unfulfilled.

Global news flow

A new president gets elected in the US and Burkina Faso on the same day. Which news is likely to get more importance on that day in a Bangladeshi newspaper?

The answer, obviously, is the new US president.

US president Joe Biden speaks

Let’s think of another hypothetical situation. If three people get stabbed in London and Lahore on the same day, which news is likely to get global coverage?

Of course, the incident in London.

In both these examples, the incident was the same. The only difference was where it had occurred.

This is global news flow in action.

The so-called developed world, which is often referred to as the ‘West’, has always dominated the global information flow.

They had a head start in creating media and had more resources to spread their news. Hence, they have inundated the rest of the world with their news for decades.

All of the big news agencies in the world, Reuters, AFP, AP, etc, belong to the ‘West’ and most news outlets in developing worlds depend on these agencies for news outside of their borders.

Hence, the biases and values of these news agencies creep into the coverage of local media.

There’s not much a local media house in a developing country can do to stop this information imbalance in their coverage. But these restrictions shouldn’t apply to social media. Should they?

More of the same in social media

Every few decades, there comes an invention that completely changes how society functions thereafter. In the last two decades or so, that invention has been social media.

According to Datareportal, by July of this year, 4.70 billion people across the world are active on social media. Percentage-wise, that is 59 per cent of the entire world’s population.

Facebook, which was created in the dorm rooms of Harvard University by a group of friends in February of 2004, is the most popular of all social media platforms with 2.934 billion active users as of July 2022.

Facebook is just one of numerous social media platforms that have a followership in the billions.

A large majority of this followership, especially on Facebook, comes from underdeveloped countries in Asia and Africa.

But still, when it comes to news, it’s the traditional news outlets that are dominating social media.

ilhouettes of mobile device users are seen next to a screen projection of Youtube logo in this picture illustration

Youtube is a great example of this phenomenon. As of July this year, there are no independent news outlets in the top 10 of the most subscribed English news channels on the platform.

Wion is the only English-language news outlet focused on South Asia that is in the top 20 of that list, with the majority of the channels being from the US and the UK.

These outlets are spreading the news that is already present in the traditional media, trying to maintain the one-way flow of information and dictating the mainstream worldwide.

Independent media houses or news outlets from the lesser developed countries who are trying to counter this news flow are also facing another problem, censorship.

There is no doubt that censorship is important to maintain a healthy environment in the social media and keep people from spewing their regressive beliefs on the platform.

But in the name of curbing ‘fake news’ these platforms often muffle news that goes against their economic, political and social interest, creating another barrier in the way of the free flow of news.

Hoping against hope

It may seem like social media has been around forever, but in reality, this media is still at its nascent stage.

Nobody could’ve predicted that social media would spread across the world like wildfire. The thought that one day it could become the primary source for news across the world would’ve sounded crazy at the time. But right now, it’s the reality.

The optimists among us can hope that social media would not follow in the footsteps of traditional media and make changes in their regulations to ensure and encourage the free flow of news.

But with every year, that ray of hope grows dimmer.