Let’s say you live right across the street from a takeout restaurant. Their prices are a bit higher than local competitors, and there are constant rumors of health code violations and mystery meat. But for the sake of speed and convenience, you usually eat there anyway. After all, you’ve got more important things to worry about...right?

This routine may seem ignorant or lazy to some. The second-nearest eatery can’t be too far away, and you'd probably be better off if you rolled up your sleeves and made a healthy meal. But just as people opt for sketchy neighborhood takeout over the healthier, less convenient alternative, they quickly fill up on political news and information through social media feeds rather than traditional mediums — even if they know it could be bad for them.

Social Media Makes Us Feel Less Informed

According to Pew Research Center, at least 180 million adults in the United States used social media in 2018. Roughly 68% of them used it to consume news — yet more than half of that group expected the digital platforms to present them with erroneous information:

Social media is decidedly not the most reliable provider of political news. Most people log on expecting to be misled, and log off feeling no smarter than they had been:

Consuming news on social media usually doesn’t make people feel any more well-informed than they would otherwise — especially when it comes to politics.

The Social Media Perception Gap

People know getting news on social media isn’t the best way to stay informed, but it may even be more harmful than they think. A recent study titled “The Perception Gap” explored this phenomenon, and suggests that news consumption on social media may distort users’ views of those on the other side of the political aisle. The larger a group’s “perception gap,” the more contorted their view of the other side’s beliefs.

26% of people in the survey reported sharing political content online; that group had an average perception gap of 29 — 11 points higher than the group that hadn’t shared content.

If you’re a politically active social media user, that data may surprise you. But it shouldn’t. Relying on vicious ideological battlegrounds to inform educated thought is foolish. Instead of veteran journalists and editors deciding what news people see, it can just as easily be a friend or colleague reposting a phony news story or heavily biased editorial. Most social media users understand that, but continue to use the platforms for news anyway.

So why do people keep going back? Finding the truth is both expensive and time-consuming. Reading news on social media is much more in line with America’s current convenience-obsessed culture. Hundreds of millions of people use social media in the United States every day; comparatively, roughly 28.5 million U.S. newspapers were circulated daily in 2018, a drop of nearly 50% since the year 2000.

Convenience is King

Compared to the free-for-all forums that social media sites offer, TV and print news are more concise and intensely filtered. But the former demands that you devote 30 minutes to sit attentively in front of a screen, and the latter usually comes with a paywall and a subscription that always seems just a bit too pricey. News on social media allows the user to come and go as they please — 24 hours a day, at no cost.

Journalism has had to adjust to digital mobilization, for better or worse. That shift has made news consumption an easier but far less responsible process — with social media as a relentless, uncontrollable force behind the change.

Traditional news consumption has fallen out of favor with the average, far-too-busy American. But turning to social media for the quick and free fix is not the solution by itself. Ethically-sound journalists still work to inform the public, and a well-intentioned news consumer should be wary of relying on social media alone if they want a breadth of reliable information. Truth-seeking is a process — and as media gatekeepers become a thing of the past, being a responsible consumer is more important than ever.

Becoming a Responsible Media Consumer

The public has plenty of complaints about the current state of the media: biased reporters claiming to be objective, clickbait content, and paywalls, to name a few. But good journalism is still practiced every day in this country. Just as a daily commuter may have to make a detour to find the best deal on gas at the expense of time, a news consumer must dig deeper than their daily social media feed to get the best understanding of the world around them, even if it takes a little more time — otherwise, they risk being fooled by media bias and fake news, and falling victim to hate-fueled, unchecked polarization.

AllSides makes it as easy and as quick as possible for readers to get the full picture. Our hundreds of media bias ratings inform a daily, balanced news feed that helps readers to break through the filter bubbles and bias of their social media feeds. We present the news from the left, center and right side-by-side so readers can close their perception gap and understand what the other side is saying. We’re also on Twitter and Facebook, where we help users to diversify their news feeds and round out their worldviews. The future of our democracy depends on a less divided, more informed populace, and learning to understand the other side is the first step.