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CREDIBILITY OF SOCIAL MEDIA AS ALTERNATIVE NEWS SOURCES: AN EVALUATIVE STUDY
1.1 Background to the Study
Internet technology has made communication much easier and less expensive. It has attracted many people and has penetrated into people’s daily lives. The mass media also have accepted the Internet. Almost all forms of traditional media, such as radio, television, and newspapers have extended their work into this new field. Online media distinguish themselves from traditional media. Online media allows readers to enjoy browsing their content and offer not only texts but also digital images. Online media can present the most recent information and links to related news articles from local to international topics. The interactive features of the Internet seemingly imply that online media have more advantages than traditional media forms. People’s expectations for new types of journalism are driving them online. Some have begun seeing the Internet as an alternative to traditional media and this has raised credibility questions.
In communication research, the credibility of the communicator has widely been suggested to influence the processing of the communicated content and the change of audience attitudes and beliefs (Kang, 2010). Also, it has been suggested that the credibility of the channel/medium of communication influences the selective involvement of the audience with the medium (Metzger et al., 2010; Metzger et al; 2003). Accordingly, individual audiences are paying closer attention to the media that they perceive to be credible (Johnson and Kaye, 2010). When individual audiences rely more on a certain communication medium for information seeking, they are likely to rate the medium more credible than other media (Johnson & Kaye, 2010; Kiousis, 2010; Kiousis, 2001).
Generally, credibility refers to the objective and subjective components of the believability of a source or message. News credibility has traditionally been considered a multidimensional construct, although the composition of credibility dimensions has been inconsistent across studies (Mitchelstein & Boczkowski, 2010; Mertzger et al; 2010; Rahman et al; 2009; Kiousis & Dimitrova, 2006). Along with believability, the most common components of media credibility emerging from past studies are accuracy, fairness, lack of bias, completeness, depth, and trustworthiness (Flanagin & Metzger, 2001; Johnson & Kaye, 1998, 2002).
The concept of credibility has been researched along source, message, and media dimensions, and most literature on new media relies on these measures (Metzger et al., 2003). For example, early research focused on source credibility by examining the accuracy of reporting in news (Gaziano & McGrath, 1986). Internet-related credibility research draws mainly from source credibility and the interpersonal communication literature, but also includes items from the traditional media credibility literature. Common variables include the extent to which websites and information online is believable, trustworthy, unbiased, etc. Other dimensions include assessments of accuracy, relevance, and comprehensiveness (Metzger et al., 2003). However, since Hovland, Janis, and Kelly (1953) first began studying credibility, communication scholars have identified trustworthiness and expertise as two primary dimensions of credibility assessment (Chung et al., 2010; Fogg & Tseng, 1999).
The credibility of the interpersonal channels became a subject of debate among communication scholars recently (Chung et al, 2012). Gradually, the modern media systems emerged to close the obvious gaps of audiences’ inability to promptly get the news as they break while putting some checks in place to ensure credibility of the news items they communicate. However, ownership factor and other interests led to the politicization and commercialization of news items among the conventional media. At a point, audience members took the news from these media with a pinch of salt. Today, various social media have emerged and they have become sources of news dissemination. Some of such media are: Blackberry, Facebook, YouTube, Skype, Badoo, Nimbuzz and Whatsapp.
The traditional media have been acknowledged for years as reliable sources of getting news (Mitchelstein & Boczkowski, 2010), but the same cannot be said of the social media. Recently, some rumours spread like wild fire among Nigerian undergraduates. These rumours later turned out to be untrue. For example, a popular pop singer in Nigeria, Tu Face Idibia, was said to have died and the longest bridge in Nigeria, Third Mainland Bridge, was also going to be blown up by the terrorist group known as Boko Haram. Social network users also circulated the rumour that certain food items from northern Nigeria have been poisoned, causing panic among people. Since social networks involve users‟ generated content, the sources and truthfulness of these contents are hardly ascertained. Notwithstanding, news are continuously spread via these social media, some of which many times have been discovered to be false.
Fast-developing technology, especially in the digital media environment, has empowered individuals and other stakeholder organizations to be creators of communication messages rather than remaining as the static receiver of communication content (Kang, 2010; McClure, 2007). This has raised serious credibility issues due to the problem of checks and verification of the credibility of such news contents and the sources. As a result, the communication process has increasingly become multidirectional.
1.2 Statement of the Problem
News and source credibility over time has engaged the interest of research in communication. Because of technological affordances, resulting in the advent of the internet and other online media-generally referred to as alternative media, the research focus has shifted to investigating the credibility of information emanating from these alternative news sources. This new trend has generated corpus body of debate in the research literature. However, despite the fact that findings show the existence of misinformation on the internet, other researchers found that the online media has believability as high as the traditional media in certain circumstances. For instance, Internet users judged online political information sources as more credible than traditional media counterparts like newspapers and radio.
The Internet’s credibility is a major concern since information seeking is one of the main purposes of using the Internet. Online users have easy access to abundant sources but also run the risk of getting false information. Apparently, there is less control and gate-keeping on the web than for print publications. For example, as a result of the recent Ebola outbreak in Nigeria, Nigerian citizens mobbed stores to purchase salt, fueled by a rumor sent via social media. “People were under the false impression that consuming enough iodized salt would protect against infection of Ebola virus disease (Pierson, 2011).
. Previous researches have focused more on the perception of credibility of content and news sources in the mainstream media, meanwhile not much is known about the credibility challenge introduced by alternative media of facebook, twitter, blogs, etc. This credibility problem associated with social media news is of much concern to the questions of trustworthiness, objectivity, believability and expertise input on social media content, etc, which are cardinal issues in ethics of communication.
It is on this premise that this study became imperative, to determine the extent to which social media users perceive the news content on social media as credible.
1.3 Objectives of the Study
The main objective of the study is to ascertain the extent to which social media users perceive the news content of social media networks as credible. Hence, in specific terms, the study has the following objectives:
- to determine users’ level of dependence on social media for information needs.
- to ascertain the level to which social media users perceive social media news as trustworthy.
- to examine the level to which social media users perceive professionalism in social media news content.
- to evaluate the extent to which social media users perceive social media news as objective.
- to determine the extent to which users believe social media news content.
1.4 Research Questions
To meet the above stated objectives, the following research questions will guide the study:
- to what extent do users depend on social media for information needs?
- to what level do social media users perceive social media news as trustworthy?
- What is the extent to which social media users perceive professionalism in social media news content?
- to what extent do social media users perceive social media news as objective?
- to what extent do social media users believe social media news content?
The following hypotheses were predicted in relation to the research questions and the demographic variables:
- H1: There is significant difference between dependence on social media for news and respondents’ gender.
- H1: Perception of social media as credible news source will be dependent on level of education.
- H1: There is positive significant difference in the perception of social media as objective news sources across age variable.
1.6 Significance of the Study
The study has both theoretical and practical uses.
Practically, the findings of the study will shed more light on an understanding of how social media could serve creditably as an alternative news source to users and the entire citizenry. Especially, it will help reveal the preference of young people between the social networks and traditional mass media as news sources and the extent to which young people believe social network news/information.
To the government, as policy makers, the findings of the study will be useful in providing information on the use of social media to disseminate government news for better governance. Also, without valid and reliable measurement of credibility, the management of credibility in social media will be hardly feasible for policy action.
For the media industry in general, this study will unravel best ways to improve the credibility of alternative media content.
Theoretically, this study will contribute social scientific literature on credibility of the use of social media as sources of news. Finally, the academia will benefit from the study, as the findings will discover other areas rich for further researches to help commemorate the study.
1.7 Scope of the Study
This research is focused on evaluating the credibility of social media as sources of news. Since the numbers of those who use social media are many, it would be impracticable to sample all their opinions. Therefore, this study would be limited to examining the phenomenon in Enugu state.