The emergence of social media has destabilized all prior notions of content creation and production and blurred the traditional lines between producer and consumer. To be a producer, now, is simply to be anyone with access to a smartphone—not necessarily an owner of a large media organization or journalism graduate (Duffy, 2015). Although digital inequalities persist, the barriers to create and publish content are little to none for the general population (Blank, 2013). You can take as many concert videos for Instagram as you want, record endless videos for TikTok, and give all your followers your opinion on the best Starbucks secret menu items. But this, in turn, has also created space for anyone to present themselves as experts on any topic, regardless of qualifications (Roman, 2020). Ultimately, the democratization of content on social media allows for diverse voices to spark new discourses and promotes citizen participation but breeds misinformation and still upholds the political polarization characteristic of traditional news media, due to the emergence of algorithmic filter bubbles.
The proliferation of social media content, particularly related to politics and social issues, has opened up new dimensions of legitimacy that can be tricky, even for Gen Z and millennials, to navigate (Di Domenico et al., 2022). Because users are not always tied to organizations, or even their real identities for that matter, it is not as simple as relying on the author’s name for a credibility check—not to mention the infinite reshares that create more barriers for examining the content’s source. This may be seemingly harmless for TikTok dances and Starbucks drinks, but this becomes a problem for harmful or misleading content: who is held accountable when anonymity is an accessible option and trolls can make new accounts faster than platforms remove them? And how can it be regulated when legitimacy is so easy to fabricate?
Di Domenico et al. (2022) identifies multiple dimensions of legitimation in reference to the misinformation spread about the COVID-19 vaccines. This includes cognitive, pragmatic, moral, expert, and algorithmic legitimation (p. 324). Within this, each dimension works differently with misinformation, and all dimensions interact with each other to reinforce the collective “legitimation” of misinformation (p. 327). Interestingly, in the context of COVID-19 vaccine misinformation, the algorithmic dimension of social media works to provide a layer of social acceptance in conjunction with the validation provided by the four other legitimacy dimensions (p. 327). Di Domenico et al. points out that the algorithmic dimension is unique of the others in that it occurs separate from the actual content of the misinformation itself and is, instead, enforced simply by the logic of the platform and what is popularized in the platform’s “marketplace” (p. 327). Therefore, there is trust and legitimacy baked into popularity, which can happen for virtually any content, created by virtually anyone with an account.
This information, coupled with the statistic that 20% of Americans retrieve their news from social media, is cause for concern (Pew Research Center, 2018, as cited in Roman, 2020). Can the power wielded by social media algorithms withstand the diversification of media democratization? Scholars, like Kitchens et al. (2020), take a critical standpoint and raise the concern of echo chambers and filter bubbles. These are terms used to describe the filtering and curation of social media algorithms, which reinforce ideological positions by only attracting like-minded opinions (Kitchens et al., 2020, p. 1619). The ubiquity of this phenomenon on social media, therefore, shows that the idyllic diversification of news on social media is an illusion, as the polarization of right versus left traditional news media is simply being aggregated to their respective communities in the online sphere; the divide remains with the additional confusion of misinformation. Still, other scholars remain hopeful that this democratization is important for bringing shifts toward participation and accountability.
Porlezza (2019) describes the catalytic potential for journalism to become participatory, accountable, and transparent with the emergence of media democratization (p. 2). Its potential, however, has not been as revolutionary in practice due, as Porlezza points out, to users’ lack of action and newsrooms’ apprehension towards participatory culture (pp. 2-3). Porlezza’s recommendations, therefore, lie somewhere between the romanticized total democratization of social media and the ownership of traditional news media. That is, Porlezza proposes an adoption of new journalism practices that mostly reject exclusive “traditional professional norms and practices” and, instead, promote audience communities and active contribution by readers to neither reject nor adopt social media reporting completely (p. 3).
This, ultimately, recognizes the important benefits of media democratization without ignoring the issues of regulation in the misinformation social media area. By building awareness of the presence of falsified legitimacy online, like in the case of vaccine misinformation, and identifying the ideological power wielded by filter bubbles and echo chambers, we can destabilize the romantic view of a democratized social media landscape and move into a socially aware restructuring of journalism and news media that is committed to community accountability.
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