Social Media Literacy: What is it and why we need it

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The morning light permeates through the diaphanous curtains of pearl grey while my phone announces itself, quavering on the bedside table next to me. I reach out, grasp it in my palm and hover it above my face. I squint my eyes— my lashes masking the initial forceful glare of my screen— while I scan the notifications listed on my device. This seems to be a common practice for many of us. The pounding urge to check who in our social network has prompted the ding at the dawn of day. We then spend hours on end enthralled in the content published on our social media apps, drifting through the news feed one thumb swipe at a time. Without too much deep thought, we begin to ‘share’ revealing posts, ‘like’ enlightening images and posit our unsolicited opinions in the comment sections of numerous articles and Facebook pages.

 Social media is a huge part of our lives—socially, academically and professionally. It allows us to remain connected with friends and families from various parts of the world and has empowered users in diverse ways that were unimaginable two decades ago. This has also meant that social media has increased the user’s abilities to influence. We are no longer just ordinary consumers of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and TikTok. We are now content creators, online activists, gossip columnists and journalists who contribute to the distribution of false and factual information, both positive and negative, that have the power to persuade the views of a global audience. Reverend ‘Alimoni Taumoepeau in Australia spoke to the Sydney Morning Herald in an effort to encourage the Tongan community in Sydney’s west to get vaccinated after conspiracy theories began circulating across various platforms stating that the pandemic was part of God’s judgement on the world which in turn led to an increase of distrust in Covid vaccinations. More recently, Tonga’s Ministry of Health CEO, Dr. Siale ‘Akau’ola called for the Tongan public to be cautious of the misleading information spread on social media regarding Covid 19 and vaccinations because it causes confusion. This highlights the importance of verifying information presented on social media, regardless of your stance, before sharing it with others.

In a comprehensive study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, researchers discovered that on Twitter false news was re-tweeted more than true news. It revealed that the truth took “six times as long as falsehood to reach 1,500 people,” and it wasn’t bots spreading the news, but ordinary consumers of Twitter. The researchers wrote that “false news was more novel than true news, which suggests that people were more likely to share novel information.” A quick scroll through various Tongan gossip pages on Facebook, with an intense mass following, exposes hundreds of posts regarding Tongan people based mostly on speculation, unprocessed information and rumours which are then distributed through thousands of shares and likes by ordinary consumers.

 When using social media, the questions that need to be asked is in what ways can consumers ensure they are not contributing to the perpetuation of harmful ideas, rumours and fallacies through their social media platforms and networks. How are they participating and engaging with the content presented on their devices? What critical frameworks are being applied to the content created and consumed? The way to do this effectively is to be social media literate.

Media literacy provides a framework to access and evaluate various media content and understand the role of media in our society and as a form of expression. Social media literacy is then the ability to engage critically with the social media content we create and consume and the messages we are sending to the broader community. Stanley Baran (2015), proposes seven media literacy skills that can also be applied to the way in which user’s engage with social media. These are:

  1. The ability and willingness to make an effort to understand content, to pay attention and filter out noise.

  2. An understanding of, and respect for, the power of media messages.

  3. The ability to distinguish emotional from reasoned reactions when responding to content and act accordingly. It is imperative to be aware of our emotions when we read articles or posts on specific topics or people. Often, individuals are quick to respond by using vulgar language to comment on the post and share it.

  4. The development of heightened expectations of media content. Be conscious of how we respond to viral videos or most viewed content.

  5. The knowledge of genre conventions and the recognition of their mixing. That is, determining whether the source is reputable.

  6. The ability to think critically about media messages. Be mindful that not everything you read on social media is true.

  7. The knowledge of the internal language of various media and the ability to understand its effects. This refers to understanding how media is produced to convey a specific message.


We are living in a digital age where social media is a part of our every-day lives. It is often the first thing we check when we wake up in the morning and the last thing we look at before we go to sleep at night. It has the power to influence the perceptions and beliefs of user’s in our network, so social media literacy is vital in protecting ourselves from falsities and prevent inaccuracies and rumours from further dispersion.




Baran, S. (2015). “Mass Communication, Culture and Media Literacy.” Introduction to Mass Communication: Media Literacy and Culture, McGraw-Hill Education, 2015, pp. 4–26.