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The Role of Influencers in Modern Journalism
Influencers carry a wide range, crossing over into almost every other job sphere from simple things like fashion and home design to more niche content like marriage counseling or “non-toxic” living. Showing you how to achieve the look and lifestyle you want is what influencers are known for. Recently, however, we are seeing them enter a new field, journalism. Here’s the interesting part: a lot of people prefer them over real journalists. With the growing role of social media influencers in journalism we need to ask ourselves some important questions.
Where’s the Trust?
Influencer journalists are outranking traditional journalists for a whole host of reasons, but a lot of it boils down to trust. Trust in more mainstream news sources, like television or news websites, has gone down. Meanwhile, trust in social media sites giving news has gone up. These, and more statistics relating to news come from the Reuters’ 2023 Digital News Report.
The main people switching to more social media-based news are the younger generations, with Gen-Z being at the top. That being said, a lot of them admit to not necessarily trusting an influencer more but gravitating towards them anyway because they’re more accessible. Here’s where we see some very interesting, and almost conflicting, statistics.
- 55% of TikTok and Snapchat users surveyed and 52% of Instagram users surveyed said they get their news from influencers
- Getting news from actual news sites is at 22%, down 10 percentage points from 2018
- Only 30% of respondents think social media algorithms are a good way to get the news
- Only 32% of Americans who were surveyed trust mainstream news sources
- 56% of respondents worry about being able to spot real versus fake news on the Internet
See what we mean by conflicting statistics? While we are definitely seeing a rise in people using social media for their news, those same people acknowledge that social media isn’t completely trustworthy. What’s more, only 48% of people surveyed said they were even very interested in the news!
When we’re talking about trust and credibility, we have to look at it from two different angles. Who people say they trust more is important, yes, but who is actually more credible is also important. It’s equally important to understand that no one source is without bias. Influencers have bias, and traditional news has bias.
Traditional news sources have been studied for bias for a long time. If you want to see some media bias charts of the most common news sources, you can check them out here. Now, bias does not mean untruthful. We can tell the truth and say it in a way that shows which way we are leaning. When it comes down to it, journalists are still bound by journalistic integrity. Social media influencers can be biased, but more dangerously, untruthful. There are many reasons an influencer might not be honest about a news story.
Money, Money, Money
One, their money is reliant on their audience. Journalists work for someone else most of the time, but their money doesn’t come from people liking their stories. Influencers need to keep their audience, meaning they need to post what their audience likes. Because of this, they might be tempted to omit certain information or completely make up part of a story in order to push something in a certain direction. Influencers aren’t the only ones responsible for this though. Many social media users admit to not wanting to see stories or statistics that go against their preset beliefs.
In addition to having to answer to an audience, most influencers must also answer to their brands. Many brands pick influencers that reflect their own political beliefs. Influencers' followers are important, but brand deals are where the real money lies. Fear of losing either could push them to bend the truth on popular news stories.
News influencers might also be well aware of their deceit. Exclamatory statements and bold claims can boost their engagement. It’s not just their audience they are trying to attract, it's all the comments arguing with them as well. Social media algorithms are unbiased when it comes to engagement. Positive comments and negative comments all mean the same thing. If a video is something people want to talk about, high engagement will push it to bigger audiences.
Lack of Knowledge
This is the least nefarious reason for influencers lacking credibility. Journalists have access to more information than influencers do and have years of experience in researching complex material. Journalists can interview the people central to the stories being discussed or use their media backing to get into locations regular civilians can’t. When it comes to news sources like VICE, we see journalists in active war zones during their reporting. Even the most well-intentioned influencer just doesn’t have that power. While influencers may be presenting what they think is the full truth, the reality is that their posts could be lacking some details they’re unaware they are even unaware of.
The Internet’s Echo Chambers
Putting all the credibility and trust talk aside, let's look at another important part of influencer news. Some of you might be familiar with the phrase ‘echo chamber’ in regard to the world of social media. For those who don’t know, an echo chamber refers to the common occurrence of only being shown what already fits into our belief-system online.
This is thanks to the almighty algorithms on social media. Social media sites like Instagram, Facebook, and X have a common goal; to keep you scrolling as long as possible. They do this by studying what content you like and interact with the most. This all gets used by their algorithm to suggest new content that fits your viewing habits. This happens a great majority of the time, because who doesn’t want to be recommended things they already like? When it comes to news though, this can be dangerous.
Echo chambers and algorithms can keep us from seeing the other side. We can miss out on statistics and stories that show opposing views. We might also become more radicalized as we continue to see content that caters to our beliefs without being challenged at all. This can even take us to an extreme: where viewers accept information without question, no matter how incredulous it seems, because it aligns with their view.
No News is Good News
One last thing we need to talk about is the rising trend of simply avoiding the news. Again, we are seeing this most often in younger generations. Climate change, war, corruption, and random violence are all things Gen Z just doesn’t want to hear about. Because of that, they just aren’t seeking out traditional news sources.
This trend of not wanting to see the news is actually helping influencers who want to tell the news. If influencers can find a way to sneak statistics or new stories into their content, those opposed to seeking it out might instead stumble upon it. Short-form and engaging content are much more likely to be watched to completion than a two-page-long article. Combine that with everything we mentioned previously and we have the perfect storm for influencers to be believed more than actual news sources.
What Can You Do?
Influencers telling the news aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. If you want to make sure you are getting accurate information here are some tips for your online consumption.
- Research multiple sources: It’s fine to get a story from an influencer, but it’s important to add additional resources into the mix, especially if they’re from reliable news outlets.
- Challenge yourself: Purposefully seek out those with opposing opinions and see how their information is different from yours, including the way they are interpreting the same story.
- Mix up your media intake: If you really want to keep up to date on the world news, then watch and read from a variety of sources.
- See if they are selling something: The best way to spot a potentially biased influencer is to see if there is a brand or product attached to whatever news they are telling.
Story written by Jamie Essick.