By Sherman C. Seequeh
I first got worried about social media and its unsavory powers when media giants like the Times, Newsweek and other prominent western magazines and newspapers several years back announced their transition from print to online. Some had even threatened discontinuing their print versions. Very fond of the traditional media, I felt so sick about these reports. But whether I like it or not, the social media is taking over, if it has not already done so, and all hell is breaking loose. Not only has fake news become a pandemic, destroying the peace and harmony of some democracies, non-professional media people acting as journalists are influencing, directing and dominating professional media people.
True, the birth of the Internet has bolstered free speech to unprecedented proportions. It has further globalized the world community. And much of this achievement is largely powered by the social media, which gives every literate person some voice and even the illiterate person a space in the public discourse.
Despite the celebratory breakthrough of the Internet and its offspring, ‘the social media’, there are fundamental drawbacks which are not understood by all those who use them. Only few understand this. Of the many backdrops associated with implications of a dominant social media culture, the one that troubles me most is this: the way non-journalists are driving and manipulating even the career journalists’ thinking and work ethics. Indeed, for whatever reason, there is an emerging psyche amongst professional journalists and it is falling subservient to mischiefs on social media. Trumped up information, doctored photos and false alerts and alarms are mistaken for credible sources of news and sadly some newsroom journalists are copycatting them.
Why say this? Talking to practicing journalists and reading their pages or listening to their monologues on radio and television, one nowadays can see and hear that much of the basis or reliance of many professional journalists’ conclusions, as reflected in their reportages, is what they see and read from the social media. Social media comments, photos and videos emanating from posters, many of them non-journalists, have become sources of news that are confidently quoted by practicing journalists.
What this means is that, gradually, journalists and their professional reportages have taken to the backseat of public discourse; they are no longer the reliable sources to be quoted by ordinary citizens, lawyers, educators and politicians. Instead of influencing public opinions and leading the ordinary people to their conclusions and opinions, career journalists are now rather led and influenced by social media “journalists” as the authoritative sources of news. It now seems that newsroom journalists—I am not talking of disc jockeys and talk show hosts—have resigned to combing Facebook and other social media pages in order to form opinions and dovetail them into editorials and commentaries and their news stories.
By acceptable standard of ethic and professionalism, journalists are people who verify information and sources of information towards maintaining accuracy, balance and clarity or fairness in their news reports. Social media posters or “journalists” are not under any such ethical obligation. They often respond to Facebook’s “What’s on your mind?” and they unleash their minds. And, as we all know, the human mind, as Jeremiah put it (Jeremiah 17:9) in the Holy Bible, can be “more deceitful than all else, and is desperately sick; who can understand it?”
Widely open for anything one thinks, the social media gives leverage even to those who King David describes at Psalm 5:9, “There is nothing reliable in what they say; their inward part is destruction itself. Their throat is an open grave; they flatter with their tongue.” The social media, by its nature, provides domain to mischief makers, as portrayed in Psalm 52.1, “who practice deceit, your tongue plots destruction; it is like a sharpened razor.”
Only the traditional media, which is sterilized by its professional calling and ethical upbringing, can save the day. Thus, the need for self-examination is therefore a must. Instead of being led by and subservient to the social media, newsroom journalists must lead the social media and frame the discourse. By so doing, non-journalistic social media posters will quote news materials from the traditional media and not vice versa.
While it is true that the importance, influence and speed of social media may not be reversible, I disagree that nothing can be done in Liberia to liberate the traditional media and professional journalists from the claws and stupor of the social media. Perhaps we can give a national conference on the fate of the traditional media amid looming chaos in the social media a try. Ar Dooh-Nahn oh!
The author, Sherman C. Seequeh, is a Liberian journalist, a political analyst and Director of Communications at the Ministry of State for Presidential Affairs