Social media bosses – look away now. Painful headlines follow:
We trust your platforms less than ever before. We blame you for spreading extremist content, fake news and social menace. We don’t believe you are doing enough to challenge illegal behaviour, or tackle bullying and child exploitation. And if you don’t or you won’t do anything about it, most of us want you regulated.
The uncomfortable truth is that fewer than a quarter of Britons now trust social media companies like Facebook, Twitter et al when consuming sources of news and information. As such trust in professional journalism is being eroded, with most people saying they don’t know how to tell good journalism from rumour and falsehood.
It’s true that people generally still value social media when it comes to staying in touch, reaching loved ones, and the ease with which they can share information. But most don’t see it as a force for societal good. The image that internet giants like to promote as innocent bystanders on the net – exemplified by Google’s “Don’t be Evil” motto – is failing to convince. The young are as unhappy as the old about this – one in ten young people told us they’d turned away from Facebook in the last year.
As trust in social media sinks, there is better news from traditional media. Once hollowed out by a decade of systemic shocks – from disruption of the internet, to Trump and the advent of fake news – a majority of us now say we trust newspapers and broadcasters.
But they face challenges too. A third of us say we are accessing news media less than we were. One in five of us are actively avoiding it altogether. When we asked why people were turning off from news consumption we were told it’s too depressing, one sided, biased, or controlled by hidden agendas.
Lack of trust is having a negative effect on our consumption habits too. Only six per cent of people now consider themselves part of the informed public – those who consume business or political news several times a week. That figure has never dipped below 11 per cent – until now. Given the issues we face in the 21st century, it should be a real concern that we are becoming a nation of news skimmers and news-avoiders.
While traditional media can capitalise on growing support, the same is not true for social media businesses – problems that have nibbled at their heels for years have finally bitten them. If sat at the same breakfast tables as social media execs this morning most of us would be yelling: “Extremism, cyber bullying, fake news – you just don’t get it – do something.”
Combined, these companies enjoy market saturation, employ some of the brightest minds on the planet, and have almost unlimited financial resource: deep pockets, huge power, big capabilities. Yet it’s just too big a task, they say. We’d have to employ huge numbers, they argue. Technology moves too quickly. The problem is there exists now a majority view, strongly held, that small steps and incremental change are no longer enough. An over-correction will now be needed to change minds.
Do little and these companies, in many ways powers for good, may just lose the right to help to inform and shape the debate. Blunt regulation will almost certainly result. The social media revolution delivered disruption at brake neck speed – what it needs now is leadership, and fast.
Ed Williams is CEO of Edelman UK. The Edelman Trust Barometer can be found here.
A version of this article first appeared on The Times.