Recent polls and surveys indicate social media is taking a hit in the trust stakes, whilst traditional media is making a comeback. Journalists are rising up the trust chart — at least outside the White House — as people are turning back to that much derided category: Experts.
Social media’s reputation has suffered thanks to the mix of “fake news,” manipulated images and videos, and dark propaganda. This has seen a shift back to the traditional media, according to the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer, a study of trust of 33,000 people in 28 countries. Traditional media saw a rise in trust globally from 54 percent to 59. The Edelman survey reinforces the findings of a 2017 Reuters Institute survey, which indicated that only 24 percent of those surveyed thought that social media was credible in separating fact from fiction.
Nobody likes to feel manipulated or fooled. The widespread reports and speculation that Russian bot farms had a role in various democratic elections, including in the US and the Brexit referendum, only exacerbates the issue. China is also accused of meddling in electoral processes overseas. Many governments are accused of manipulating, fabricating and propagating news in their own countries to win at the ballot box. In the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte had the support of a “keyboard army” helping him win the 2016 election, including with the use of fabricated news and fake social media accounts.
What stands out is that news consumers do not believe that social media platforms work hard enough to root out fake and distorted news items. They perceive a lack of transparency. Moreover, it appears that the issue of trust is worse in democratic countries, not the developing world. The top four countries surveyed where trust in media was greatest were China, Indonesia, India and the UAE.
Overall, media institutions were perceived to be more interested in attracting a big audience by reporting or getting to a story first than they were in ensuring accuracy. Trust in the media was also a great issue in more polarized societies like the United States. The Edelman survey found that only 27 percent of Trump voters trusted the media, as opposed to 61 percent of Clinton voters.
However, consumers now appear ready to pay for news. In 2017, there was a 7 percent increase in those prepared to take out subscriptions for news in the US. Until recently, the trend was that people wanted information on the cheap and almost resented paying for it. But even younger readers are willing to pay. The mainstream media has not suffered heavily from the tag of “fake news” or “lame stream media.” CNN and the New York Times are the typical victims of President Donald Trump’s Twitter rants but, despite his claim that the New York Times is “failing,” it has doubled its paid subscriber base over the last two years.
If the surveys are correct and people do want and will pay for accurate, impartial news, this should be encouraged — with the mainstream media honoring that trust by striving for ever greater heights of professionalism and integrity.
Have we reached peak social media? The answer is almost certainly no and social media still plays many positive roles, even in the latest protests in Iran. Often such platforms highlight important and different stories to traditional media.
But the tech giants will have to respond and respond much faster. The likes of Facebook, still the largest social media platform for spreading news, Twitter and YouTube have to show that they can be trusted, not just for accurate news but also on issues such as hate speech, privacy and security. Parents are nervous about their children’s online habits in a society that increasingly seeks validation measured in likes, shares and follows. Even the CEO of Apple Tim Cook has kept his nephew off social media.
Governments are starting to take action; worthwhile but risky terrain in terms of the freedom of the media. President Emmanuel Macron of France has proposed amending French election law so that tougher action can be taken against social media platforms spreading fake news during an election campaign. Last year, Germany passed laws that would compel social media platforms to take down hate speech and fake news within 24 hours. The British government has just announced an anti-fake news unit designed to counter the practise, but quite how remains to be seen.
Trust is precious — it is the building block of our societies. Governments, institutions, businesses all have their work cut out in an increasingly skeptical world, but the media is frequently the means by which trust is nurtured or killed. Media platforms have a responsibility. If the surveys are correct and people do want and will pay for accurate, impartial news, this should be encouraged, with the mainstream media honoring that trust by striving for ever greater heights of professionalism and integrity. It can do so by mixing the best of the traditional values of great journalism with the innovative features of the social media and digital age.
• Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). He has worked with the council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University.