Two months ago, a friend posted a link on Facebook: BaltimoreSyllabus.docx. I clicked, and a Google Doc of unknown origins appeared with titles like “What’s up with Baltimore?” and “On the Bigger Picture.” It amounted to 11 pages of resources on critical race theory, current events and social context of the protests following the death of Freddie Gray.
The link went viral, jumping across different groups of people online, but remained under the radar of mainstream media. This was millennial news consumption in a nutshell: seeking, skimming and sharing unique links that most papers, radio shows and broadcasters never hear of.
In a report done by the Media Insight Project, an initiative of the American Press Institute and the Associated Press, Facebook was the primary way that millennials get their news. Contrary to fears that young people are “newsless,” 85% of millennials say the news is at least somewhat important to them. Millennials read news for “civic motivations” (74%), problem-solving needs (63%) and social factors (67%), such as discussing news with friends.
Today, social media is doing more than just sharing existing content. Videos and photos taken on smart phones and real-time tweets are creating content without professional compilation or sound bytes. The man who recorded the Freddie Gray video said, “I finally made a difference”. And after a video of a McKinney, TX police officer breaking up a pool party went viral, it sparked outrage and quickly led to the officer’s resignation.
Entire careers are being based on the new era of social media activism. The New York Times Magazine profiled Johnetta Elzie and DeRay Mckesson, two “protester-journalists” who went into action after the death of Michael Brown. Ellie and Mckesson juggle multiple phones to provide a steady stream of online updates from cities consumed by protests in the last year.
I’m an avid news consumer and read articles from sources including The New York Times, Google News, and American Al Jazeera. I ‘crowdsource’ my news by clicking articles shared on Twitter and Facebook precisely because I don’t see them on big news sites. Often times, Facebook “breaks” a story long before it’s picked up by larger outlets.
Last week, I watched as a New Yorker story about Kalief Browder began to be shared. Browder was a twenty-two year old who had been held on Rikers Island as a teenager. He spent more than 1,000 days without a trial, spent about two years in solitary confinement, and committed suicide on June 6. His ordeal helped trigger efforts to reform the New York City court system.
I shared the article myself, hoping that clicking the link and re-posting would help bump Browder’s story to the top of the news cycle. Then, gaining momentum, I shared an op-ed by Charles Blow from the New York Times on stereotypes surrounding black fathers. I shared another posted by a friend about David Felix, a young man with schizophrenia, who was shot and killed by police who failed to follow procedure.
Contrary to the fear that social media encourages us to connect primarily with people we already agree with, 70% of millennials say that their social media feeds are evenly represented by viewpoints that agree and disagree with their own. In my case, I want as much accurate, objective information on these topics as possible, I want my friends to know I care about race, policing and mental health, and I want them to learn more – and hopefully care more – too.
I’m under no illusion that sharing an article isn’t enough. “Hashtag activism” isn’t the end goal. Posting these articles may raise awareness. And while police shootings likely haven’t risen, related have become increasingly prominent, even making it into the speeches of presidential candidates. Millennials’ new approach to consuming and sharing media may not only influence news organizations, but affect policymakers too. And if news providers won’t evolve, chances are they’ll miss a 21st century market opportunity. The writing is on the Facebook wall: millennials are committed to social media, and they aren’t looking back.