December 23, 2019

Social media and mainstream media: the fight for the truth

December 23, 2019

The effect of the Internet and social media in regard to promoting debates and discussions has been contested both in public and among scholars. Cyber-optimists expect the Internet to have a profound impact on providing an equal chance for every citizen to voice their thoughts. Cyber-skeptics are more concerned about the detrimental effects that the Internet brings along. Like any other tool, social media brings both good and harm; yet, it is still a very powerful communication tool, which can aid in creating changes, especially in such a developing nation as Vietnam. The question to ask ourselves, then, is how to use this communication tool in a more effective and ethical way.

Mainstream Media and Social Media

For centuries, citizens turned to mainstream media for the most updated news. Before the advent of the Internet and social media, mainstream media exerted its influence over communications by framing and reframing discourse on various issues, including politics, economics, and social matters. Moreover, as the end goal of these media conglomerates was economic gain; entertainment news, which were easier to sell than hard news, were prioritized. News slowly became mass produced, and consumers tended to spend less time to read carefully and think critically.

However, the advent of social media platforms has drastically changed the communication flow from one-to-many to many-to-many under the format of blogging. Even journalists now turn to social media for stories instead of doing their own investigation. Newsgathering become receiving and disseminating reports and video from people not affiliated with professional news organizations, sometimes without editing or fact checking. The audiences also no longer act solely as the readers but take on new roles: the role of citizen journalists by reporting their own news; and the role of editors by constantly recommending which types of news their friends should follow on social media.

Cyber-skeptics believe that because the Internet lacks quality control, it promotes the dissemination of inaccurate and misleading information. Unlike in traditional media channels, the editor, who filters inaccurate or unreliable source of information, can be anyone; thus, they cannot be held accountable for spreading fake news. This causes confusion for the audience in terms of not knowing what and whom to trust among the unfettered information available on the Internet. Moreover, social media can be manipulated by different forces by spreading false information.

Yet, it is this very lack of quality control that provides Internet users, especially in developing countries, the agency to become more active in engaging in social and political issues. The Internet offers a fair ground for users to publish their thoughts, expressions, ideas or creative works without the interference of the gatekeepers, who determine which piece of information is considered ‘newsworthy’.

Doubtless, every tool has its pros and cons; and implications can be drawn from such pros and cons to foster better discussions on the Internet. Hence, to ensure a free marketplace of ideas on the Internet, joint effort must be made from all stakeholders, especially the mainstream media.

How social media and mainstream media can co-exist: The Formosa case

 Every Vietnamese can still remember the atrocious environmental disaster happened in April 2016. Tons of fish were mysteriously washed ashore along the coastlines of four provinces in Vietnam – Ha Tinh, Quang Binh, Quang Tri and Thua Thien-Hue. The lack of timely investigation and action from the government gave rise to a widespread dissent both online and offline. The government later announced in June that Formosa Ha Tinh Steel Corp, a Taiwanese steel conglomerate, was responsible for the marine disaster. Formosa was then fined $500 million in compensation for the damage.

News regarding the mass fish deaths initially broke on newspapers. The outrage on social media only began after the lack of actions taken by the government. These articles and online blogs discussed an array of topics, including government’s weak investor assessment process, its passive measures against Formosa, and the failure to include this disaster as one of the most significant issue in the Natural Resources and Environment industry. Thus, facing strong dissents on mainstreams and social media, the government was pressured to take the responded actions.

It can also be interpreted from this case that while the press was the original news breaker, social media actually paved way for journalists to be more contentious. Reacting to strong online dissents, journalists went out of their way to investigate the core problem, exercised their watchdog function and successfully pushed the limits.

In other words, in this day and age, for such a developing country as Vietnam, mainstream media and social media cannot function without each other. The question to ask ourselves, then, is how to use both communication tools in a more effective and ethical way.

Education is one possible solution. Users should be educated to not accept all information at face value and believe in its accuracy. One has to be critical when analyzing and processing information both offline and online; and the upside is that with the vast collection of information available, the Internet makes it easier for people to crosscheck the validity of the information received.

In regard to the amount of unfettered information on the Internet, traditional media should step up and further embrace their role to inform the public the authenticity of news. The press should be required to find a way to work with social media while carrying out its watchdog function and be held accountable for fact-checking.

In sum, the debate should not be which method of communication is better than the other. More efforts should be concentrated on finding a suitable path moving forward in order to ensure an ideal environment that is conducive for fruitful discussions. At the end of the day, social media is merely another tool for communication; it is up to the stakeholders to find a way to use this tool more effectively for a common good: to ensure our voice is heard.

Chat with the expert

 To discuss further on this topic, Fulbright University Vietnam is honored to welcome the famous host of MSNBC’s Hardball with Chris Matthews, Chris Matthews, to campus on 29 December 2019. The show is MSNBC’s longest-running program and Chris Matthew has been its heart and soul for 20 years.

Chris Matthews starts out each show saying, “Let’s play hardball.” And for the next hour he played “hardball” with the public officials and political pundits by entering into debate or pursuing a hard line of questioning. This is a very “Matthews’ way” of fostering discussion on mainstream media.

Coming to Fulbright, the famous host will share his view on how social media has transformed mainstream media in America and the world, and what any other changes Vietnam should expect in the future.

Register for the event here:  http://bit.ly/36DQhpZ

Thao Truong

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