Dennis AbbottManaging director for communications at Burson-Marsteller Brussels
The short answer is yes and no. Social media has transformed the way consumers receive information. It is increasingly the channel of choice for accessing all types of news, from current affairs to gossip. The Brussels bubble is no exception to this trend. Twitter is the second most influential source of news for decisionmakers, ahead of the Economist, the Financial Times, and POLITICO, according to the ComRes/Burson-Marsteller 2016 EU Media Survey.
Traditional media has had it tough adapting to the digital age. Readers—and advertisers—have defected in droves. Publishers have seen revenues plummet as online aggregators plunder colossal quantities of copyrighted content. Journalists (those still in a job) are in competition with everyone else to be first with breaking news. They no longer decide what is the biggest story of the day. The news that goes viral is often produced by social media users.
While traditional and social media are an awkward couple, they need each other—arguably more so today than ever. In the post-truth era of fake news, people are increasingly looking for sources they trust. Of the 320 million active users on Twitter each month, 126 million follow CNN and the BBC, the most influential media in Brussels.
Tom CarverVice president for communications and strategy at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
No. Social media is not journalism, it is a medium like TV or radio through which journalism travels. When Canadian professor Marshall McLuhan famously said that “the medium is the message,” he did not mean that the medium had replaced content, but that all content is influenced by the medium it travels down.
And so it is with social media, which has changed the nature of journalism. Thanks to social media, news outlets have lost their breaking news effect, as it is now almost impossible for one outlet to contain a story for more than a few minutes. Social media has triggered a proliferation of fake news by amplifying fabricated stories in a way that has never happened before. Algorithms that recommend content make it harder for audiences to come into contact with alternative points of view.
But in many ways, all these changes have made good journalism more valued, not less. Proof that people cleave to brands that they can trust in times of uncertainty can be seen in the recent rises in subscriptions for the New York Times and the Washington Post. Journalism is changing, but it is not going away anytime soon.
Jakub JandaHead of the Kremlin Watch Program and deputy director of the European Values Think Tank in Prague
Social media can be faster than journalism at reporting breaking news but can never replace journalism. It is clear that traditional media will never again have a monopoly on the gatekeeping of information flows. Anyone can post online about any events. But that is not journalism, which is essential for democracies.
The problem with current journalism is that those who dedicate their lives to this mission rarely defend their own profession. Today, many people pretend to be journalists but in fact hide behind the label while spreading lies. Journalists, like lawyers or doctors, need to take their profession and its honor seriously. That means proactively challenging pseudojournalists who systematically spread disinformation. Journalistic associations, which are now dysfunctional in many countries, need to play a strong role here. Journalists need to check their peers and aggressively push back against those who break the unwritten rules. In an age of massive disinformation campaigns, a solid media watchdog organization is a must in every democracy.
Moreover, European governments are spectacularly failing in funding independent fact-checking initiatives. Sadly, it looks like most of them simply don’t care about protecting a decent public debate from disinformation.
Edward LucasSenior editor at the Economist
Social media is amplifying and complementing journalism, but not replacing it. Tweeting and sharing are the new printing: What’s the point of writing an article if nobody reads it? Journalists love bragging about how many followers they have (Did I mention that I have 58,000 on Twitter?). Social media posts are also the raw material for journalism, providing eyewitness accounts and firsthand views (not least from U.S. President Donald Trump). Parody accounts offer a welcome touch of color, such as the brilliant @DarthPutinKGB. Thunderbolts of controversy handily illuminate the contours of an argument. Archiving functions are useful too—whole stories can be written about an embarrassing tweet, deleted but still available as a screen grab.
The biggest problem, as with the Internet generally, is knowing if what is online is true. Twitter’s verification function plays an important role here: a tweet from a verified account matters a lot more than one from a so-called egg, the default avatar for a new profile.
Bruno MaçãesPartner at Flint Global
For the most part, yes. I rely less and less on newspapers. They are too slow in breaking news and have become increasingly limited in their views. Ideally, one would be able to rely on something like Twitter for breaking news and a broad array of analysis and specialized media outlets for deeper analysis. Journalism today needs to be obsessively good. Otherwise, it is just irrelevant.
Gianni RiottaMember of the Council on Foreign Relations
Social media is the new journalism. Ask any twentysomething where they read the news, and they will refer you to Facebook, Google, or Twitter. The idea that there are two spheres of information, old media and new media, is obsolete. Today’s world offers a messy, crowded, noisy, partisan ecosphere of news, yet never in history has so much quality information been so available, so affordable, and so easily shared.
The danger lies in the polluted sources, the fake news, the state-supplied lies packaged as real news. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg swears just 1 percent of content on the platform is fake. He may be right, possibly a bit generous, but it does not matter. If I give you a box with 1,000 candies and promise that just one of them is poisoned, you will toss the whole box away. Although 1 percent may not be much, if it is impossible to know what is true, users are doomed. As the principle of Pseudo-Scotus says, ex falso sequitur quodlibet: from falsehood, anything follows. So the future of journalism is indeed in social media, but if a sustainable business model and a coherent benchmark of fairness cannot be found, democracies are at risk.
Marietje SchaakeVice chair of the European Parliament Delegation for Relations With the United States
No. A free and pluralist press and independent journalism are indispensable in open societies. Social media has created an additional layer and a new dynamic of interaction and communication. We live in a time of information abundance.
Advantages exist for journalists as well, as they can directly reach sources, build personal profiles, and increase their engagement with audiences.
The same goes for politicians, who no longer depend on journalists to write down or broadcast their words. As a result, social media and other new technologies have forced journalists to reinvent themselves. Amid a wealth of information and opinions, journalists offer guidance, analysis, and interpretation.
It is important that Internet users see platforms like Facebook and YouTube for what they are: a place where all kinds of information and opinions are shared. That does not mean every blog post is fact-checked, vetted, or curated. Unfortunately, on online platforms, unfounded or sensational stories can easily go viral.
Social media creates a new landscape, in which open societies have to be vigilant about the principles they cherish: access to information, nondiscrimination, fair competition, and free expression. Those are not necessarily safeguarded by advertisement-driven business models. If anything, the world needs more journalism.
Paul TaylorContributing editor at POLITICO
Social media is profoundly changing the nature of journalism and undermining its traditional business model. Advertising has decamped from print and broadcast to online at much cheaper rates, starving old media of vital revenue. Ever fewer young people are willing to pay for news. They take what they can get free on social media. All but a handful of niche media outlets face a dearth of independent commercial funding, making them vulnerable to billionaires with vanity projects or political agendas. This means fewer jobs for journalists, less international news, and fewer pages. The foreign correspondent is in danger of extinction. It also means lower living standards for all but a few star journalists.
But social media offers a new vector for all forms of journalism, new sources such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, as well as a zero entry price for so-called citizen journalism and an instant ability to fact-check journalists and politicians. The main risks are unreliability—whether intentional fake news or a rush to publish before proper checks—and closed-circuit communication among like-minded groups without a journalistic reality check.
Ultimately, the hope is that those who need reliable information to make business or policy decisions will still pay for quality journalism.