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1 February 2018

Trust and the Algorithm: The battlefront for truth

Written by: Satyen Dayal, Senior Director at Edelman

General

The 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer once again reveals the fragility of global systems based on the institutions of business, government, media and NGOs. Where the 2017 survey pointed to a wholesale crisis in trust, 2018 turns our attention to media, which for the first time becomes the least trusted institution globally. But even here an ensuing ‘Battle for Truth’ uncovers data that appears to defy both human and machine logic.

Trust distortion 

Many commentators have noted that the now newsworthy, ‘fake news’ is very much old news and dates back as far as the birth of the Guttenberg press. The premise being that the arrival of any new medium is followed by a period where the search for truth is met by a Pandora’s box of lies. Trust evaporates.

Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian professor might say that any analysis of trust in the media will uncover trust in the message. Right now, the message from the online world he conceived 30 years before its invention is distorted.  

For example, to get a closer look at the increased distrust in media institutions, this year we asked people what they classify as media. Journalism is near unanimous at 89%. Social media is next at 48% followed by news apps at 41%. Twenty five percent of people think search engines are part of the media institution.  

We’ve tracked trust in search engines as news sources for some time and it started at much higher levels. This year, trust declined quite a lot but hasn’t quite yet hit the distrust zone. Conversely, there has been little if any trust in social media as a source of the truth. In 2016 we did learn that as a place where friends and family can connect, there’s a lot of trust. Equally so if you’re a social media savvy academic.  

Journalists and elected officials don’t favour so well in social media. But journalism has commanded more respect when it’s reaching people through official channels such as the website, newspaper or TV and radio stations. In the UK, trust in these heavily scrutinised channels spiked significantly this year. Ironically, at our launch event, The Daily Mirror’s Kevin Maguire put this down to a rise in journalistic standards that has come from the constant accountability of journalists to social media voices.  

Regulating the truth 

Social media working in near-partnership with regulators to protect the truth? In principle, not a terrible idea. But then Mark Zuckerberg, who exactly a decade ago was met with open arms at the World Economic Forum, returned last week to calls for his company to be regulated like Big Tobacco 

Facebook’s mission to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together has hit some roadblocks. Illegal content is a big one according to our UK trust data. People want social media firms to take more responsibility when it comes preventing unethical behaviour, extremism and bullying on their platforms. They’re also worried about exposure to fake news.    

Certain people feel that social media is not bringing them closer to those they love. But then far more do. Where some believe it’s not a place to share information, many are comfortable with this. Worryingly, most Brits feel that social media companies take advantage of people’s loneliness. Despite all these concerns, the question of whether social media is a force for good in society sees the optimists having the edge.     

People do want better regulation of social media. In fact, regulation of high-tech firms was a big discussion point at our trust event.   

Abusing the force  

In response to calls for being recognised as a media company, Google’s Ronan Harris put forward the case for impartiality. Moreover, search engines are not seeking to take the truth mantle from journalists. Instead, they’re offering multiple sources from which people can make up their own minds. Another principled idea.  

Last year, our data showed that people were more likely to believe search engines than human editors. However, the impartiality of technology with a mission to provide access to the world’s information in one click is difficult to determine. Should the worthiness of that information be determined by its distributor, audience, producer or all of the above? Regardless, if its purpose is to deliver truth to the masses, the algorithms that underpin the tech will almost certainly be a massively disruptive force in any industry that has a similar remit.     

Perhaps this is the true battlefront for the truth. Attack of the algorithms. 

Interestingly, alongside the declining trust in social media and search engine platforms, their algorithms are becoming smarter. As disruptive as they may be, the signal is that their destiny is very much tied to journalism. In fact, people are also actively disengaging in news from journalists for similar reasons as the assault on tech: the over focus of attracting eyeballs and lack of accuracy in reporting.  

In order to counter this truth avoidance, today’s media institutions need all constituents to join forces and develop new algorithms that prioritise trustworthiness over newsworthiness. Listening to our trust panellists, it seems that in some places they are. To aid the algorithm’s programming, they could look at our 16 attributes for building trust. These range from openness and transparency to the ability to attract widely admired leadership.  

Admirable algorithms. Potent weapons in the battle for truth.

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