The destructive power of the ‘fifth estate’

October 17, 2022 5:45 am

A recent study shows that about 50% of the U.S. adult population often consult social media platforms to get the latest news (photo by hapabapa/iStock Images).

In today’s environment, one could argue that social media has become a primary source of information just as much as the traditional press — regardless of whether the content is reliable or not.

The press, free from government control and oversight, has long been referred to as the fourth estate because of its watchdog role and power to disseminate factual information, which is so critical to a functioning democracy.

However, with the advent of the Internet, a fifth estate has emerged, where social media users’ primary goal is to shape public opinion and political discourse.

A recent study shows that about 50% of the U.S. adult population often consult social media platforms to get the latest news. Whether Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok or other options, it begs the question: What are these social media platforms really good for?

Answers vary, depending on who you ask and about which platform.

Some would say “absolutely nothing,” and have chosen to stay as far away from all of the platforms. Why? There are few if any guidelines for the content. Anyone can publish anything, whether true or not. And there is little or no quality control.

Some would say that social media platforms are good and convenient ways to stay connected with family and friends. Others might say they are good for entertainment and a marketplace to sell products and services. Still others see the platforms as  readily accessible channels for well-intended political influence and social expression.

But no matter how we access them, how frequently or for what reasons, it is in each of our best interest to know the sources and to understand the quality of the information we are consuming and relying upon.

This applies to whatever consumer group or groups we may be a part of that causes us to logon: As parents, teens, concerned citizens, social or political activists, curious bystanders or news junkies.

Arguably, social media as the fifth estate is becoming just as influential as the traditional press in contemporary society — not only in the United States, but across the world —especially when it comes to disseminating information and influencing public opinion and actions quickly.

But, all is not well or reliable in the fifth estate.

One major problem with the dominant social media platforms is how they often play loose with the truth and facts, allowing misinformation and disinformation to be posted at will and disseminated instantly.

If there are rules and regulations when it comes to posting false, hateful and destructive content, they are often not enforced until after the unthinkable damage and harm have occurred. Even then the surveillance and enforcement may be sporadic of short-lived.

Former President Donald Trump was permanently banned from Twitter because of false and dangerous tweets, prompting him to launch his own social media platform, Truth Social.

Most recently, famous rapper Kanye West, now known as Ye, has had his Twitter and Instagram accounts locked for an anti-Semitic tweet. How long he will be banned remains to be seen.

But, too many other lesser-known violators often go undetected.

How many mass murderers and terrorists announce and choreograph their rage and intentions before the heinous crimes are committed?

Social media can be used to aid and abet horrendous atrocities. You might recall how the Myanmar military used Facebook to incite ethnic cleansing and genocide.

How many political extremists use social media platforms to peddle hate speech, conspiracy theories that mislead some ill-informed unsuspecting public?

The January 6 insurrection protest on the U.S. Capitol was organized and mobilized using social media.

Protests, demonstrations have been organized and mobilized in cities across the country and the world, using social media. What once would have taken a long time, now only takes days, even hours.

Nearly 60% of teens have experienced some form of bullying by what is posted on social media, often causing silent and irreparable harm, even suicide.

The overriding question that each of us must consider: Should social media platforms, without the safeguards, values, principles required of tradition media, occupy the same standing, importance and space in our quest for information and truth?

If so, what operational standards should be required of them as they continue to grow in reach and influence?

There are valuable roles social medial platforms can play, and information voids they can readily fulfill. But just as in exercising freedom of speech and the press requires assuming responsibility for content, accuracy and appropriateness, the same should be required when it comes to social media as a legitimate form of public communication.

As voracious consumers of social media, we should be demanding that responsibility and standards be adhered to.

Without such controls and accountability put in place to regulate content and how it is used, social media is easily weaponized and can promote and cause harm among the most vulnerable among us and upon many aspects of our society.

As concerned citizens and caring adults, should we be okay with that?

Can we continue to afford the risks?

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Janice Ellis
Janice Ellis

Janice Ellis has lived and worked in Missouri for more than three decades, analyzing educational, political, social and economic issues across race, ethnicity, age and socio-economic status. Her commentary has appeared in The Kansas City Star, community newspapers, on radio and now online. She is the author of two award-winning books: From Liberty to Magnolia: In Search of the American Dream (2018) and Shaping Public Opinion: How Real Advocacy Journalism™ Should be Practiced (2021). Ellis holds a Ph.D. in communication arts, and two Master of Arts degrees, one in communications arts and a second in political science, all from the University of Wisconsin.