Social Media and Journalistic Ethics in the Age of Disinformation 

By Aidan Wiess 
Office of University Communications intern
  • letter blocks spelling "fake" slowly turn to spell "fact"

Social media has come a long way since MySpace exploded in popularity almost 20 years ago; it is now the way billions of people around the world consume news and stay connected to friends and family.  

Western Washington University Journalism Senior Instructor Joan Connell, who teaches classes on media ethics, chatted with Western Today about the social media landscape as it pertains to journalistic ethics, corporate responsibility and accountability, and political agendas.  

Connell said the ability of social media to spread disinformation – and the willingness of people to believe almost any story as long as it fits their worldview, means society no longer works from the same unified system of facts for its decision making, with the last election being a prime example.  

“We have different segments of the population who have very different ideas about what the truth is. The election was stolen. The election was valid. Two very strongly held beliefs by different segments of society. So how does that get reported? One key question to me is how journalists can avoid being manipulated into promoting false versions of truth,” she said.  

Connell explained that the problem has less to do with politics and everything to do with social media.  

“Our information landscape, our media landscape, has significantly changed over the past 20 years and the determinant is not presidential administrations. It's the rise of social media and the segmenting of our public life into silos. Separating people into like-minded groups as Facebook and other social media companies do, it has divided us rather than united us,” she said. 

She went on to say that 30 years ago, everyone tuned into the same news broadcasts and the information landscape was fairly unified, but social media combined with the rise of tabloid news changed everything.  

“The reality is, emotion drives engagement, and online content is designed to get an emotional response - so that further polarizes people. We no longer have that shared public square. We have our little bubbles of ‘like mindedness’ where we get our news. People get most of their news from social media now. Some of it is from legitimate news organizations, but some of it is not. So we have a mix of information and disinformation,” she said.  

Connell touched on the role of social media within domestic politics, and how the press corps covered statements made by politicians on Twitter and other social media feeds.  

“It is the lesson that news organizations have learned from covering Trump and others who are in an alternate reality. It's taken about four years for news media to figure it out. That if you start your story with the lie, then you're going to give the liar the power,” she said.  

Connell detailed the solution to this problem, as solved by a linguist named George Lakoff from UC Berkeley, called the “truth sandwich.”  

“If you start your story with the lie, you're participating in the lie. So he proposed something called the truth sandwich, which is beginning with the truth, then stating the lie, and then reiterating the truth,” she said.  

Connell also spoke on the ways that social media has influenced politics on a global scale.  

“Poland, Myanmar, repressive governments around the world ... their leaders have social media accounts. They foment violence. They stir up people with lies and exhortations to mayhem and there is no penalty from Facebook or Twitter. They have not lived up to their obligations as members of a civilized society. They're just monetizing their business plan,” she said.  

According to Connell, journalism is a very dangerous occupation that has become more dangerous around the world as political leaders demonize the press.  

“That's why, if you're photographing a mass protest, it's much better to use your iPhone camera instead of long lenses and big equipment that turns you into a target. TV journalists are very vulnerable, because they do have big camera gear and high visibility. So now I teach safety training on how to cover a demonstration,” she said. 

She also said that the demonization of the media by candidates like Trump doesn’t stop journalists from their most important role as the watchdog of Democracy.  

“No public official really loves the journalists asking them annoying questions, but it's part of the dance. In earlier times, there was a certain amount of respect and I think currently there is a certain amount of good working relationship between journalists and their sources. If you do a good job, if you are clear and fair in your reporting, people that you cover will appreciate the quality of your work. I don't think that's been destroyed,” she said. “We're restoring that kind of stability right now in the White House but politicians have always been skilled at lying to journalists.” 

If you start your story with the lie, you're participating in the lie.

Connell also stated that the problem with social media influence falls on the audience as well as the influencer. 

“The problem is as much with the audience as it is with the influencer, because the audience agrees to be influenced. Why is it that 3 billion people follow Kim Kardashian? Again, emotion drives engagement. What do you think Logan Paul does? He pushes every single emotional button. Right? And it works for him and he gets rich off of it,” she said.  

Connell concluded by discussing the state of social media and where it could be heading in the future.  

“Online audiences are notoriously fickle. Tomorrow, an alternative to Twitter might present itself and all of a sudden Twitter will be nothing. Definitely at the core of things is that social media companies do not pay any price right now. They have no legal obligation to do anything and that's the problem," she said. 

“That's what's looming now, not only in the United States, but around the world, as governments are trying to make social media companies socially responsible. Right now, they are not. They share responsibility for our divided political environment because they have allowed bad actors to use their platforms with no consequences,” Connell said.  

Joan Connell came to Western in 2011 after a long career in journalism. As a national correspondent for Newhouse News Service in Washington, D.C. she was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for innovative coverage of religion, ethics and moral issues. In the early days of online news, she was as an executive producer at and helped develop editorial standards for the MSN network. She served as editor of the digital edition of The Nation magazine in New York and co-directed the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia University School of Journalism. 


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Wednesday, February 24, 2021 - 8:46am