The Whirlwind of Social Media: Does social actively change the way news stories unfold?

Barack Obama: social media was a big part of the 2012 US Presidential election campaignSuperstorm Sandy and President Obama’s re-election are two of the biggest stories to have dominated social media in the past few weeks. In both cases, Twitter acted as a platform from which to gain breaking news ahead of the curve, as well as the usual avenue for thought trails aired the world over. Joan Collins expressed her sheer devastation following Bloomingdale’s temporary closure during the storm, while the presidential campaign engaged voters through excessive tweeting, hash tags, liking and sharing. The increasing impact of social networking is obvious.

Yet these instances can also lead us to an interesting question. In a digital world, where newspapers and websites are constantly updated and accessed through computers, tablets and mobile phones, is social-media actively changing the way news stories unfold or is it just another avenue through which to access news?

Social media has certainly changed the way that news is reported, both in the way we approach it and how it is delivered. When watching CNN or the BBC, programmes will frequently be accompanied with hash tags that allow viewers to convey a feeling of togetherness and, during the recent presidential elections, of support. The impact of ‘trending’ is huge and is now used in sync with news pieces appearing on other networks, linking television, radio and other mediums with a strong online social presence as a result.

Social media has become so commonplace that without it, news bulletins can often look isolated and will appear outdated and unreachable. During ‘hurricane sandy,’ Twitter provided a blow-by-blow account of what was happening which was consequently projected to the rest of the world. And in such a dire situation, it was completely necessary – nobody reported it faster. On a less life-threatening scale, Obama’s campaign trail on social media similarly reached out to a massive demographic. One may question whether, without the sense of unity and togetherness cumulated on social networking sites, Obama’s campaign and his subsequent re-election may have suffered.

Even outside of the election, the capacity in which Twitter and Facebook can influence is unbelievable. Anybody can tweet the President of the United States and that level of contact and accessibility for the everyday individual is in itself quite powerful.

As much as we are all aware of the benefits of social media and the integral role it plays in the everyday communication of brands, businesses and everyday people, there are of course dangers alongside it. One such danger is the speed at which thoughts of all shapes and sizes are pumped out onto a very open forum. It’s all rather alarming when you think how instant it can be – and what’s more, once it’s put there, how difficult it can be to retract. The storm in particular saw more than a few brands, figureheads and celebrities throw caution to the wind as they’ve abandoned any thought to the implication of that 140 character sentiment – sometimes a disaster so large, it rivalled the storm itself.

It is difficult to question whether or not the news industry would suffer without the presence of social media. It certainly impacts the way that news is told and unlike other platforms, gives individuals the opportunity to respond, opening gates of communication that otherwise would be closed. Whether it is outrage at the latest Eastenders saga or shaping support for the next US president, there is no denying that Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and many more, are now an integral piece of the media puzzle and beyond. 

Lizzie Wood (@LizzieJWood), account executive, Fourth Day PR