News journalism in the digital age is fast-changing. We are bombarded with stories every day that have an imperceptibly small, if any, impact on our actual lives. Scandals roll off politicians without their revelations affecting any political change, and reports of disasters in far-away places bear no impact on the day-to-day of their audience. On social media, it seems that the function of the news has been absorbed into the larger identity-construction project latent in apps like Instagram and Facebook.

I say this because of the very little change affected by sharing news by single individuals on social media. The seemingly primary function would be to publicise a story that the sharer sees as important to publicise. The sheer volume of news stories that washes over us is extreme, and so the time afforded to each one is lessened. Each disaster occupies a similarly short space in the public consciousness before being replaced. The publicity of the persecution of Uyghur muslims in China was heavily criticised for being so short-lived, akin to a “trend”, despite the oppression itself being nowhere near short-lived. The real change implemented by this huge (but ephemeral) outcry online was negligible. 

It is also true that their significance is almost equated with non-news in the medium. A person’s Instagram stories often consist of a combination of memes, selfies, and earthquake footage. There’s no sanctity afforded to the latter because they occupy the exact same medium. I posit that there is a different primary function in news sharing from affecting change, and that is identity construction. 

The ability to share news easily has made the specificity of content a form of communication about the identity of the poster. By disseminating news about, say animal rights, you’re signalling to others that you are someone who cares about the issue – an animal-lover. You might even be implicitly identifying with vegetarian or vegan communities. The person reposting news about animal rights likely sees content concerning different communities as equally important – say, news concerning the queer community – and their choice of what to share does not diminish that. However, in the specificity of shared content, they are constructing and communicating a social identity, to which the importance of the news becomes secondary.  

I’d like to draw a distinction between identity-construction and performativity. We’re likely all aware of the criticism the blackout movement drew for being performative allyship, and this might well be valid. The one-off action could be used to strategically maintain a good image without any long-term evidence of interest. But in this case, the movement was large enough that there was no specificity in the news shared, simply an opt-in to a movement, and so no real communication about identity was at play. This does not necessarily liberate this type of news-sharing from the same criticisms, as it certainly can be performative. But while online activism can generally be seen as performance for social reward, it is the specificity that communicates and constructs an identity. What news will you share and what does it say about you?

There’s also an interesting interplay in that this function of news sharing might contribute to the rise of fake news. If the purpose was to benefit the audience of the pieces individuals share, fact-checking its validity would be paramount, but the implicit goal of aligning oneself with the article permits the fact-checking stage to be skipped.

This might sound pessimistic about the role and reception of news journalism in the digital age, but the effects of information-sharing might be making the news more powerful than ever. The outreach of news stories has undoubtedly increased with the individual’s newfound abilities to broadcast information, and there’s no reason to think the effect of news is less – it might well influence behaviour as much as it ever did. But though these effects might persist, for the individual, the aim of sharing is not to achieve these aims as much as it is to build a persona to which these aims belong.