The American newspaper magnate, William Randolph Hearst defined news as that which somebody wants suppressed. Today, Hearst’s notion of suppression has taken on a much wider meaning with the convergence of two forces: an era of low trust in institutions driven by inequity and polarisation, and the amplification, convening and organising power that social media has brought to ever- proliferating misinformation, false narratives and conspiracy theories.
Information moves markets, but so does disinformation. Take anti-vaxxers clashing with police in Westminster or violent mobs storming the United States Capitol. In the past, conspiracy theorists wore sandwich boards or shouted into megaphones that ‘the world is nigh.’ Today, social media is your megaphone to amplify whatever version of the truth you prefer. If you believe governments are suppressing the truth, then the outing of these “truths” is what you consider news. The result is a mess – and a decline in confidence in information more generally.
The findings of this year’s 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer underline how a longstanding scepticism of media has metastasized into a broader distrust of nearly all institutions and spokespeople. Trust in all media—traditional, social and search and owned media—is at record lows. Social media continues to bump along at the bottom of the trust pile, having fallen there back in 2016. Strikingly, traditional media has had the steepest annual decline we have witnessed of any media source in almost a decade of tracking.
Nearly six in 10 people say journalists are purposely trying to mislead by saying things that they know are false or grossly exaggerated. The same proportion think that most news organisations are putting ideology or political position above informing the public about what is happening in the world. There is much driving this, but it is undoubtedly a consequence of the deliberate erosion of trust in institutions.
The so-called echo chamber of media, the phenomenon of consumers seeking confirmation bias in their media choice, seems to have accelerated with one in four people now showing poor information hygiene: not regularly engaging with the news, staying within echo chambers, not vetting information or checking its veracity before spreading it.
However, it would be wrong to suggest that everyone is happily bobbing around in a sea of disinformation or naively consuming only content that reinforces prejudices. We see evidence of a growing desire for self-improvement, with a big leap in people prioritising increasing their media and information literacy compared to last year, especially around science literacy.
Science and fact were always important; inevitably Covid-19 has reinforced that. People with good information hygiene are 11 points more likely to say they will take the vaccine within a year than those with poor information hygiene. In the UK, my home country, there is a 21-point gulf between these two groups; in the U.S. it is 17 points.
So, what if anything can be done? To begin with, it’s important to understand that there has never been a halcyon moment of blind trust and veneration. That is good. We should be sceptical about the media and we should question the media, in the same way the media question institutions.
But contemporary specifics do exacerbate the situation. For example, the internet imperilled traditional media because resultant cost-cutting to offset declining sales impacted on journalism training. If we are to improve trust in our traditional media, then it is imperative we report with precision rather than clickbait. Standards of reporting, like rigorous fact checking, impartiality and fairness, need to return to newsrooms. We need to invest in and nurture professional journalism itself.
In the reverse, the banning of President Trump from social media channels has settled in some people’s mind that social media companies are publishing companies, not platforms. Regardless of that debate, it is not contentious to say that social media companies play a principal role in distributing and amplifying dis- and misinformation content that shapes events. You can debate whether they are therefore responsible for these events, but nevertheless they, like all companies, have a social responsibility. How, collectively, they clean up their act will be the defining question for our future trust in social media.
Ultimately, we get the media we deserve. Unless we improve media literacy, fund journalism training and get much tougher on determining the difference between free speech, fabrication and falsehoods, things are unlikely to improve. There are no easy answers here. Swing the pendulum one way and you undermine legitimate free speech, do nothing and the trends we see in our data could lead to a greater crisis still.
Ed Williams is President and CEO of our EMEA operations.
A version of this post first appeared on Edelman.com