Untilrecently, traditional media outlets – newspapers, magazines, radio, and television- were the sole producers of media messages, whereas the public were consideredconsumers of the information gathered, analyzed and disseminated by mediaoutlets. However, the advent and growth of information and communicationtechnology (ICT) has revolutionized the media system. Today,we live in an age where everyone has become a journalist. The era where “mediaorganizations were considered as producers and the public as consumers of mediamessages” has been replaced by the concept of “prosumers” (producers and consumers)where everyone is a producer as well as a consumer of media messages. Inparticular, this development is reflected with the emergence of social media.According to the Oxford Dictionary ofMedia and Communication, social media is, “a broad category or genre of communications media which occasion orenable social interaction among groups of people, whether they are known toeach other or strangers localized in the same place or geographicallydispersed. It includes new media such as news groups, massively multiplieronline game (MMOGs), and social networking sites.
Such media can be thought ofmetaphorically as virtual meeting places which function to occasion theexchange of media content among users who are both producers and consumers.Social media have also become adopted as a significant marketing tool.”Althoughsocial media is a broad term which encompasses several networking sites,Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, and blogs are the most powerful social media sites,with each utilized by a large number of users. Facebook statistics show thatthe number of users has crossed one billion and some scholars claim that, if Facebookwas a country it would have been the third (and possibly even the second) mostpopulous country in the world after China and India. Thenumber of social media users is growing daily; part of their popularity istheir ease of use. Individuals simply create social media accounts for free,and the only things one has to posses to create or have a social media account area personal computer, Smartphone, Tab etc.
, an internet connection, and basic computerliteracy. Once individuals create their social media accounts they can shareand access information, publish updates, share photos, video clips and so on.That’s why all media messages within social media are user-generated content.Importantly,these internet-related innovations have created a free flow of informationacross borders. The exchange or dissemination of information on social media israpid, and information shared by a user instantly reaches any part of the globewithout any geographical barriers (unless the specific social networking siteis blocked by the government).
Information shared on social media goes viral inno time. Anyone can re-share any post published by a social media user to hisor her account, thereby, multiplying the reach of the message. Beyondindividuals, social media is popular with government and non-governmentorganizations, educational institutions, and business firms. These entities utilizesocial media to share messages, advertise products, and engage in publicoutreach. For example, many governments are attempting to use thesetechnologies for service delivery and policy engagement; the United Nations 2012E-government report revealed that 40 percent of 78 UN member countries had astatement saying “Follow us on Facebook and Twitter” on their websites. Additionally,the mainstream media has also actively employed social media to reach a broaderaudience.
All the large television channels, radio stations, and print newspapershave their own websites and active social media accounts, while journalists, aswell, can be reached on social media. In addition, media outlets inviteaudiences to participate in their programs via twitter and Facebook.Aljazeera’s ‘The Stream’ is a useful example of how the mainstream media utilizesocial media within their day-to- day activities. Yet,as users have become both producers and consumers of media content, the questionof credibility becomes increasingly crucial. Since users can create accountswith fake names and addresses, and messages and/or information are exchanged onsocial media without prior review (some sexually explicit words are blocked insome networking sites) to avoid some ethical and legal issues which may arisebetween people; between an individual and an organization. However, credibilityis the main precondition for any media outlet to be successful and trusted bythe target audience. Consequently,social media has also been characterized as lacking credibility. Most often, informationshared on social media is highly opinionated and lacks impartiality.
This putsthe integrity of media into question. In contrast, social media accounts createdby the mainstream media, official organizations, and prominent people likepresidents, prime ministers, ministers, CEOs, and celebrities tend to beresponsible because whenever something arises they can be easily located and broughtto justice.Socialmedia has also been utilized to promote political, social, and religious ideasand stands. For example, Terrorist groups like ISIS use social media to glorifytheir atrocities as well as recruit potential members.
On the other hand, somepeople use social media to intimidate and defame people by creating accountswith fake names and addresses. Even though the address of the user can belocated by the service provider or the owner of the social media site, it isvery difficult to catch such persons and bring them to justice. Manycountries have tried to control and regulate social media by blocking the sitesusing sophisticated software and/or drafting legislation which govern the useof information and communication technology. In some countries, the fear oflack of credibility and accountability has led to some social media sites beingcompletely restricted by the government. To remedy the blockage of such sitessome countries have created their own versions of social media.
Significantly,social media has also become a voice to the voiceless, and provided an alternativeview and perspective to the highly westernized and monopolized media conglomerates.Some responsible and concerned people from the Global South use social media topresent an alternative narrative and image of their countries, which are so oftenstereotypically portrayed by the mainstream media as places of drought, famine,and war. Inthe case of the traditional media outlets, they are authorized and regulated bythe law of the land and they are accountable to everything they publish orbroadcast. They have some ethical and legal standards that they have to follow.This is what differentiates the traditional media from the social media.
Aslong as social media sites are not accountable to what is being published bytheir users they remain questionable when it comes to the issue of credibility.