Survey Says: People Trust Social Media

Okay, so you’re a smart, responsible citizen of the world and you want to know what’s going on around you.  Are you more likely to flip open a newspaper – or flip open the laptop?  Well, a new survey suggests people are now putting as much trust in social media, like Facebook, for news, as they do in more traditional sources, like papers and TV stations. Naturally, younger demographics were significantly more likely to do so.

The obvious question is:

Is it really a good idea to trust social networks for news?

Every news source has its pros and cons.  Let’s look at how traditional news organizations like newspapers and TV stations earn your trust, and see whether “new” media can measure up.

Little boy in a cap reading newspapers

Pictured: obsolete institution, or the foundation of the future? (image courtesy Kelly B)

Why News Organizations Deserve Your Trust:

1. Professional reporters

These are people who report on things for a living, and they (mostly) have the training and experience to do it well. The Reuters reporter you’re reading has visited more war zones than some people have even heard of.

2. Financial resources

CNN can fly its reporters out to the scene of breaking news at a moments’ notice, send along the best available camera equipment, and hook them up with experts and eyewitnesses. The bloggers you read on the internet generally don’t have the resources available to accomplish even one of those things for a particular story.

3. Reputation

The biggest, most trusted newspapers have a long history of accuracy and fairness to back them up – in some cases, more than 100 years’ worth. A huge part of a news organization’s value lies in its reputation, and they generally work very hard to maintain good ones.  This includes employing editors, fact-checkers and other failsafes to keep their reporting honest.

Some very useful traits, all in all.  Do social networks and bloggers have any chance of topping that list?  Let’s see:

Where do YOU plug in for news? (image courtesy Brian Solis - click to view)

Where do YOU plug in for news? (image courtesy Brian Solis – click to view)

Why Social Media Deserves Your Trust

1. Bias is acknowledged

Old-school newspapers and TV networks usually hew to the old chestnut of “neutrality.”  In theory this makes their reporting objective, uncolored by personal opinion. In reality, personal judgment is always present in the news.  For example, given a limitless supply of possible stories, someone has to choose which get featured, which get merely reported and which get ignored completely. There’s simply no way to make a decision like that in a non-subjective way.  Also, a common side-effect of trying to be neutral are those stories that simply summarize two opposing viewpoints, without bringing in any actual facts that might (horrors!) tilt the story one way or the other.

A blogger, or someone posting on Facebook, is highly unlikely to have this problem.  What you’ll get instead is someone who has a specific perspective, delivering news as they see it based on their own experiences and opinions.  Whatever their biases may be, openly acknowledging them is more useful – and honest! – than coating them in a veneer of objectivity.  In fact, I think you can get a lot closer to the truth of a story by reading 3 different perspectives on it than you could by reading a dozen “unbiased” summaries.

2. Connections are personal

Where newspapers establish trust through reputation, social networks do it through personal connections. Since the people in your networks are your friends and colleagues, you already know them – their quirks, their biases, their areas of expertise. You have a decent idea of whom to trust and for what, and you can use this information to help you critically evaluate what you hear from them.

3. Misinformation can be countered quickly

Let’s go back to that survey I mentioned at the beginning. The most intriguing part of the Politico story was this quote, from the strategy director of GW’s polling partner:

I was particularly struck by how social media has closed the credibility gap… the speed with which inaccurate or incorrect information gets rebutted is much faster now than when it used to be.

Twitter and Facebook can, of course, be used to spread misinformation.  But if a majority of your network is working to be trustworthy stewards of information, then fact-checks and corrections should spread faster than falsehoods.

So Which Media Is Better?

This is the question implicitly being asked by the GW survey. But in fact, framing it this way sets up a false choice. Why? Because the information going around on Facebook or being reported by bloggers includes old media sources.  Take any opinion column or status post, trace the factual news parts all the way back down the ladder of references, and you will almost always find a reporter or a journalist at the source.

There’s nothing conflicting about this; it just illustrates that the old media and the new actually serve completely different purposes. We depend on skilled reporters and institutional resources to do the hard work of running around the world, digging up information and doing so with as little agenda as possible.  Meanwhile, when you want to want to critically analyze that information – form an opinion, explore different angles, or choose a focus – it’s your online networks and trusted bloggers you should turn to.

In other words, our modern media market crucially depends on a combination of old and new modalities; they are much stronger together than either is alone.

That’s my argument, and now it’s your turn. Where do you usually turn for your news?  And do you agree with this analysis?

2 thoughts on “Survey Says: People Trust Social Media

  1. I completely agree that old + new = optimum. What is important is content–where it comes from, who is creating it, what do we know about them. True about all media. Point of view gets integrated into “news” which we can see what what is selected for coverage and how it gets placed in context. Compare for example the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. However reach has carved out an identity so we are aware of what to expect. And some basic level of factual accuracy in news reporting is assumed, rightly or not.

    An example that confused me about factual accuracy in FB postings came up recently. The claim was made that Whole Foods is planning to reduce the working hours of its employees to minimize the impact of the Affordable Care Act. That is no different than what Wal Mart does. If this is accurate, I will no longer shop at Whole Foods. How to find out? Not covered by any of the national news media. Doesn’t mean it isn;t accurate though since they can be influenced by many commercial forces.A FB posting–believable or not as a source of information?

    • You’re right that there’s a lot of content out there that can’t be verified one way or the other, or at least not without significant resources. I wonder whether having those surface on Facebook is better, or worse, than not hearing about them at all.

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