History of Social Media: from the Beginning to the Present

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After originating towards the beginning of the 17th century, media has morphed and shifted both its platforms and how information has been distributed, as well as the public’s accessibility and participation ability. Through these changes, new media has radically altered the way that government institutions operate; the way that political leaders communicate, the manner in which elections are contested, and citizens’ engagement ability. This paper shall briefly address the evolution of media, before examining in greater detail how their role in society and politics. Basic facts about the history of social media.

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Social media came into being in the early 17th century as the first newspapers appeared, although few people were literate so readership was widely limited. After many years and a stall in the development of new media technology, Samuel Morse invented Morse Code in 1835. Messages could be sent over long distances at almost instantaneous speed, and until then information was relayed via railroads which often took days for messages to be delivered. Photography was the next large breakthrough in the media scene, and “In 1862, Matthew Brady held and exhibition of photographs he had taken of the U.S. Civil War. Shocked Americans stood and stared at Brady’s images of the dead at the Battle of Antietam. The New York Times noted that Brady brought ‘home to us the terrible reality of war’”. Shortly after this gruesome exhibition introducing photography to the public, Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, causing instant two-way voice communication to be possible. In December 1901, the Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi raised a radio antenna attached to a kite on Signal Hill, St. John’s, Newfoundland. He received a radio signal from Cornwall, England, 3,400 km away. Electronic communication without wires or cables was now possible, however the widespread installation of television sets into people’s homes did not occur until the late 1940s. Following this widespread installation, there was a frenzy of technological television development up until 2010 with the introduction of 3D. What is being illustrated by this brief history is that, as it approaches present-day, the accessibility of media to the public drastically increases, which also means that for those in a position of power who are looking for public approval, social media has become a much more crucial key to their success.

At the same time, legacy media organizations have come to rely on aspects of new media. Newspapers, in particular, have experienced financial hardships due adverse financial market conditions, declining advertising revenues, and competition from proliferating news sources. The size of traditional newsrooms in the U.S. has shrunk by more than 20,000 positions in the past twenty years, and global newsrooms have experienced a similar decline. Legacy news organizations have cut investigative units, and only around one-third of reporters are assigned to political beats. Alicia Shepard, a former media ombudsman and media literacy advocate, opined, “When newspapers can’t even cover daily journalism, how are they going to invest in long-term, expensive investigative reporting?” Still, journalists working for legacy organizations continue to do the yeoman’s share of serious news gathering and investigative reporting. Mainstream journalists have come to rely heavily on new media content as a source of news. These trends have seriously influenced the quality and nature of news content as well as the style of political reporting, which has become more heavily infused with infotainment and quotes from Twitter feeds.

The rise of new media have complicated both the political media system, and avenues which the general public receive their news and information. Older media sources consisting of established mass media institutions that predate the Internet, such as newspapers, radio shows, and television news programs, now are forced to coexist with new media that are the outgrowth of technological innovation and advancement. While older media maintain relatively stable formats, the litany of new media, which includes websites, blogs, digital apps, and primarily social media, are continually expanding in creative ways. Mass media designed to deliver general interest news to broad audiences have been joined by niche sources that broadcast information to a small demographic. These new media sources can relay information directly to individuals without the intervention of editorial gatekeepers, causing the credibility of the information to be called into question. Instead of citizens having the ability to completely trust daily media, often one must double and triple check if the information being conveyed to them is real. When receiving information from more well-known, older establishments, one can be more confident in the accuracy of the report. Thus, new media have introduced an increased level of instability and unpredictability into not only the political communication process, but also crucial day to day occurrences being reported locally or simply to smaller demographics. At the same time, the new media era has exacerbated trends that undercut the ideal aims of a democratic press. The media disseminate a tremendous amount of political content, but much of the material is trivial, unreliable, and polarizing.

Social media has additionally strongly influenced how our political elections function, validating strategies such as candidates running for political office spending tens of millions of dollars on their campaigns and advertising themselves throughout social media platforms. The problem with this scenario is that candidates can create whatever fantasies they desire, and because large news organizations will reap the profits as consumers flock to them, these fantasies are sometimes portrayed as facts. Such an example is yet again clearly demonstrated with the recent 2016 presidential election involving Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Throughout the race Trump spent merely 10 million dollars on his campaign, and Clinton only 28 million dollars. This “bought media” is nothing remarkable, as Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio spent 82 million and 55 million, respectively. Although, the largest factor in play in election scenarios is the “free media” that candidates have no control over. Instead, large news organizations select candidates that draw the public’s attention in order to make money from covering their campaign and reporting what that specific candidate is doing. News media’s constant coverage of Donald Trump has boosted Trump’s visibility and helped popularize him, even in aggressive confrontations with the candidate. The benefit, however, is mutual. Cable news organizations made a record-breaking $2.5 billion merely during the 2016 election season, just due to Donald Trump. This economic relationship was summed up by the now-infamous statement by Les Moonves, CEO of CBS, when discussing Trump’s candidacy: “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS”. After the 2016 election, many consider mass media to be strictly a money-making scheme and that it contains little to no truth, rather that headlines are filled with rather outlandish stories that bait the consumer in, which also introduces the now widely used term of “fake news.”

At his first press conference as President-elect, Donald Trump appropriated the term “fake news” as a derogatory reference to the mainstream press that portrayed him in a negative light. Pointing at CNN journalist Jim Acosta, who was attempting to ask a question, Trump exclaimed, “You are fake news!” Trump and his acolytes frequently employ the “fake news” reference when attempting to delegitimize the media, including The New York Times and The Washington Post, for reporting Trump considers to be unfavorable. Weary of Trump repeatedly invoking the “fake news” label, CNN eventually launched a “Facts First” campaign in response to “consistent attacks from Washington and beyond.” A thirty second video shows an image of an apple, with the voice over:

This is an apple. Some people might try to tell you this is a banana. They might scream banana, banana, banana, over and over and over again. They might put banana in all caps. You might even start to believe that this is a banana. But it’s not. This is an apple. Facts are facts, they are set in stone and are not colored by emotion or bias. They are indisputable. There is no alternative to a fact. Facts explain things. What they are, how they happened. Facts are not interpretations. Once facts are established, opinions can be formed. And while opinions matter, they don’t change the facts.

Political media are forms of communication that facilitate the production, dissemination, and exchange of political content on platforms and within networks that accommodate interaction and collaboration. New media have radically altered the ways in which government institutions operate and political leaders communicate. They have transformed the political media system and redefined the role of “journalists,” how elections are contested, and how citizens are able to engage in politics. In past elections, the primary focus was upon winning the people’s support in order to be elected to public office. Instead, some candidates are abusing the system to center themselves in the national limelight. They attempt to gain attention as they continue their campaigns to become a household name. This is made significantly easier with today’s number of internet users worldwide being upwards of 4 billion, social media platform users worldwide being around 3.5 billion, and mobile phone users being more than 5 billion. Overall in current day society, the abundance of accessibility to media for the public completely changes the political game. Citizens can choose to be informed about world issues, and to make informed decisions, or they can choose not to and isolate themselves. Individuals everywhere have been empowered by their access to media, which has shaped and still is shaping our world.

Presently, social media is an integral part of people’s lives all over the world. More than ⅔ of the world’s population are dependent upon either their social media, the internet or their mobile phone. Through these changes, new media has radically altered the way that government institutions operate; both the way that political leaders communicate and political battles are waged, as well as the power granted to citizens in their ability to become and stay informed about societal issues and take stances upon those crucial issues. Media has shaped our world as we know it, both in positive and negative ways, both in the past as well as we continue pushing into the future.

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