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Social media is the modern fourth estate — treat it as such | The Triangle

Social media is the modern fourth estate — treat it as such

Lucas Tusinean | The Triangle

The nobility, the clergy and the common people — the bane of my 8th grade history class and the first three estates of medieval and early modern Europe — have long been the traditional institutions of power in liberal democracies. Even now, literal lords and monks may not be common but there are distinct classes of people that inherited wealth, have institutional power or work for a living. Often neglected but never forgotten, there is also a fourth estate: journalists and the media.

Though not an official part of government, partly on purpose to make it impartial, the fourth estate has always been important in balancing the other three. It allows the common people, who otherwise have very little power over the upper classes, to utilize their power to the maximum with the use of wide-spread knowledge, ideas, organizing and dialogue. The fourth estate is what keeps the government accountable, the people informed and communities connected. The UN, along with other regional organizations, recently described its function as “disseminating information and ideas of public interest as it supports informed societies and democratic participation”.

We associate journalism and the media with mainstream news, because it is… well, mainstream. From that perspective it might seem like the fourth estate is slowly dying as young people abandon traditional media; we can either go back to reading the morning newspaper and watching the evening news on TV, like our parents keep insisting we do, or we can accept the death of journalism and embrace ignorance, isolation and political cults of personality. I think that is doomerism. The need for information and community cannot die that easily, but it can easily be transformed. It transitioned from print to radio then to television, and now it is transitioning to social and internet media.

Young people are plenty engaged with politics, science and their communities, mostly through social media. A Tufts university report claimed under-24’s in the 2022 midterms voted in higher percentages than previous generations at the same age, including Boomers. Gen Z especially is very good at utilizing social media to share and gain information, and, as “digital natives,” they are much better at recognizing misinformation. They engage with groups, organizations and communities, and stay well-informed on the topics they care about, in the same way their grandparents would have through the daily paper. Sure, there may be lots of memes and dumb takes in there, too, but newspapers have also always had comics, fluff pieces and over-sensationalized articles. Social media, though it has an unimaginably different format, fills the exact same societal role that the news used to, except for one huge difference: no one realizes it.

When people first recognized the role and importance of the fourth estate, we also began organizing it to preserve that role. Journalistic ethics were drafted, media regulation was legislated, and, most importantly, people were educated to care about the media they consume. It was far from perfect, but a basic understanding of what media is and what makes it good was established. We have struggled to apply this understanding to social media. Part of it is the fact that many of the old frameworks no longer apply to this new format; but many of them still do, like journalistic ethics, and we have not put in the appropriate effort as a society to adapt the rest. Instead, we refuse to take social media seriously and whine about how addictive and unhealthy it is. This sentiment is reinforced by the tech companies that do not want to be regulated like journalism.

Change begins with the simple realization that social media is the fourth estate. Think of your favorite fun-fact TikToker as the science column on your dad’s newspaper, and suddenly you will have a vastly different perspective. Newspapers and TV news are far from dead, but they have taken a supplementary role to the main source that is social media. So, go follow some independent journalists, read up on news literacy and apply it to social media, take control of your algorithm or just talk about this with a friend. As long as you are aware, we will be closer to a stronger fourth estate.