There's been an undeniable surge in the use of social media over the past five years with huge benefits for information sharing, mass communication and access to information. But recently people have begun questioning the effect that social media has on public conversations.
Probably the most obvious is the greater access to political information. As Dr Andrew Leigh MP puts it, "there has never been a better time to be a news consumer". Social media has seen a surge in the way news is produced. If a politician makes an important speech you have the choice of either watching it live on the ABC or Sky News, finding transcripts online or in the newspaper, or accessing thousands of different opinions on the speech from avid bloggers to feisty tweeters.
But as people are becoming increasingly busier, there is growing demand for shorter, bite sized pieces of information, which can be less reliable, less informed and less accurate than longer, well-researched thought pieces. It's no longer merely enough to seek out political information; you now need to sieve through piles of information for the accurate, reliable content. CNN produced an article titled The Power of One Wrong Tweet which looked at the effect a tweet sent by hackers on the Associated Press Twitter account had on the general public.
The tweet falsely claimed that the White House had experienced some explosions and that the President was hurt. Within just a few minutes it was retweeted more than 3,000 times! This is just one example of how social media has caused a general divide among the general public - between those who rely on social media for news and those who rely on traditional news sources. Social media has widened the gap of quality political information as the surge in social media makes it easier for some people to read more gossip-filled, less reliable pieces than the traditionally well-researched ones.
The 24-hour media cycle has also caused another shift; the ability for everyone to have a public opinion. Previously seen as optional and voluntary, to have an opinion is now a right, no, much more than that – an obligation! As Helen Razer puts it, this constant need to be informed through social media has led to a “triumph of opinion over information”. Former Press Secretary to Kevin Rudd Lachlan Harris recently stated that “every year the number of journalists goes down and the number of commentators goes up.”
The increased use of social media for public discourse has had one final impact, a drive towards a shallower national conversation. The 24-hour media cycle has caused a rise of 'showman politicians' who jump in and become well known for their use of exaggerations and three second grabs, rather than their thoughtful reflections.
An interview with Gough Whitlam's speech writer Graham Freudenberg on Radio National explained why increased social media has caused increasingly shallow public discourse. Freudenberg explained that when Menzies made his announcement against the Vietnam War on the 29th May 1965, the Leader of the Opposition at the time, Arthur Calwell, had 5 days (until 4th June) to deliver his reply. Until then, Calwell was not asked anything by the media, just given 5 days to prepare his speech. Flash forward to the 21st Century where we have doorstop interviews, politicians tweeting and avid commentators giving their opinion in real time, it is no wonder that politicians' actions and words are over-analysed, over-demanded and underprepared - unsurprisingly leader to a shallower national conversation.
So what can we do? Well, don't start closing your Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts - just think twice before trusting information you read on the Internet or social media. And consider paying the small fee to read the real news from outlets you trust.