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University of Wisconsin–Madison

When all social media platforms look like TikTok: A Q+A with Professor Mobina Hashmi

Headshot for Dr. Mobina Hashmi
Dr. Mobina Hashmi, assistant professor at Brooklyn College

TikTok has become the newsroom. Forty-three percent of TikTok users reported getting news from the app in 2023, almost double the amount that did so in 2020 according to the Pew Research Center. 

TikTok’s 60-second, portrait mode video format has changed the media landscape, and companies are paying attention. Meta launched Reels on Facebook and Instagram, and YouTube launched Shorts. Now, individuals can go viral on TikTok in the same way one goes viral on X (formerly Twitter).

Dr. Mobina Hashmi, an assistant professor at Brooklyn College and an alum of the Communication Arts Department at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, has been teaching media ethics in the Department of Television, Radio and Emerging Media for almost 20 years. She spoke with us about how TikTok is changing media ethics. 

This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity. 

How has TikTok changed social media, the way we get information, and the news?

I think that we are generally seeing a convergence in the way people access information. I was talking to a student about how TikTok’s search engine is replacing Google for a lot of people – TikTok is their portal. If that’s the case, our interface with the world is through social media platforms, and the structure of those social media platforms isn’t meant for news. Which is fair, that’s not what they’re meant for. They were meant for people to talk to each other. But we are using them in unanticipated ways. So that’s why we’re seeing that news organizations trying to use social media to reach a new viewership are trying to adapt what they are trying to say to the limitations of this platform – the format, the genres, the styles. It’s a different language. It’s a different structure. And social media platforms like TikTok serve a different purpose than what we think of as the institution of journalism as it developed in print news. People used to criticize television news for this because television news made adaptations because the rules of the medium were different, the audience was different and the expectations of TV were different.

We are seeing something similar happening now with social media, where we are coming to terms with the fact that it isn’t just entertainment. And it isn’t just one thing among many, it’s becoming the dominant form. The forms of social media shape other forms of media. I think what we need to work on is recognizing the ethical responsibility we bear for our part in creating this world. The tradeoff that we’re always talking about is convenience versus all other values. Convenience becomes an incredibly attractive point for us as media consumers, as people living in a society, because the demands on our time are so many. 

We don’t have the time because we’re busy working or commuting or doing all the other things that we have to do, right? Our neighborhood stores are closing down, our neighborhood media outlets, the world of everything that we might get otherwise, is shrinking. And then these new media companies are offering us everything. And we take it. So when it comes to engaging with social media and journalism it’s hard to say who has the most responsibility: whether it is us as people who are on social media, the platforms or the government that needs to step in and regulate. But it definitely doesn’t seem to be the responsibility of news organizations to try and fix this. 

What are some of the ways journalists can maintain accuracy on social media platforms like TikTok?

I’ve noticed the headline format has become interesting. To avoid skewing the truth, to avoid saying something in a brief post that might be inaccurate but that can still function as a teaser or trailer, we see the rise of clickbait headlines applied to more serious news topics, like “You will never guess what happened to this legislative bill.” I think that is one unusual and maybe unintentional way in which clickbait is an ethical response by news media organizations. I’m slightly playing devil’s advocate here to some extent, but these headlines aren’t inaccurate even as they are trying to get people to click and maybe read the whole story. 

When journalists are on social media about something that is unfolding, or as information is coming out, they tend to use things like ‘so and so said this.’ So they’re signaling what happened, but they’re not signaling the event, they’re signaling that somebody says something happened. So it becomes this reporting of what people said, which is increasingly problematic, because of our sense of the world, the truth, what is accurate, or what is a fact is becoming more and more linked to whether or not we trust the bearer of that news. If I follow you on Instagram and I develop a relationship with you and feel like I know you and know what your positions are, I’m going to trust you to tell me something, rather than trusting the journalistic process or the scientific process. And those are some ways in which I think journalists are trying to not be dishonest and are trying to be accurate, is by pointing to what is actually happening, which is people saying what is happening.

How do certain TikTok features, like reposting, change what is considered newsworthy?

News stories travel through multiple news ecosystems. And it’s almost like light being refracted through multiple prisms. You might have something that goes viral in a small community. These days it might be something like a story about academic freedom to do with student or faculty speech. It goes around on email and social media. TikTok is different for everybody. My TikTok is different than yours. There’s stuff going on with young people that I don’t know about. But there’s stuff that goes viral in a particular group, however you define it. And then somebody, sometimes a journalist, sometimes somebody who’s another user who’s trying to get views, who wants to weigh in on something, and has a slightly different audience, might report on what’s happening here and it then goes viral in a different space. So, what was an organic phenomenon then becomes news. And then as it becomes news, the story changes. And then the audiences shift, the framing shifts. And by the end of it, it becomes something perhaps very different. And that to me is a really interesting example of how ideology works and structures these forms. 

What are some of the ways in which individuals are holding journalists accountable?

One of the ways I have seen people hold journalists accountable is TikTok’s duet feature. They’ll play a bit, or show a bit of text, and then they’ll comment on it saying, ‘Okay, here are the problems with it.’ Or, I’ve seen on Instagram too, and in different places where people share a snippet from some news outlet (The New York Times often), and then they critique it. You generally see this kind of criticism from activists who are invested in a particular political issue and not necessarily in the institution of journalism itself. People are pointing out, not so much inaccuracies, but biases in coverage where issue A is talked about this way while issue B is talked about in that way. 

Thank you, Professor Hashmi, for speaking with us.

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