When we talk about posts going viral, the term is accurate – especially when it comes to misinformation.

A study from USC found that just 15% of the most habitual “news” sharers on Facebook are superspreaders. They’re responsible for disseminating 30%-40% of the fake news on the platform.

Another study by social media analysts at Indiana University looked at the spread of misinformation on X, formerly Twitter. They reviewed 2.4 million tweets that were identified as containing low-credibility information (over a 10-month period). While the tweets were sent by 450,000 users, just 1,000 accounts posted about 70% of them.

Bots can amplify misinformation in seconds, and so can humans. One study from MIT showed that false news stories on X are 70% more likely to be retweeted than true stories, and at a speed six times faster.

As actual viruses do, we’re infected. In this case, by false, inaccurate, and deliberately misleading and deceiving information. Misinformation poisons and polarizes public discourse.

Doubts of reliable sources grow

You’d think that fact-checking and media literacy efforts can help us see through misinformation. Maybe, but such strategies, unintentionally, can also compound distrust in all media.

That’s the conclusion of a new study from the University of Zurich, the University of California and the University of Warsaw. It revealed that campaigns that highlight and debunk misinformation do, in fact, create more awareness and suspicion of fake news. That’s a good thing.

Yet these same efforts also sow doubts about legitimate and reliable news sources. All news becomes tainted.

Having healthy skepticism is useful. It can stir our curiosity and lead us to diverse sources of information, which can fuel productive conversations. Yet broad mistrust in media has turned us from skeptics to cynics.

I touched on that in this recent blog of mine, noting only 32.5% of Canadians in one survey said they trust the media to make decisions in the best interests of the public.

Research shows that trust in the media has been falling steadily.

Last year, the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford surveyed more than 90,000 online news consumers in 46 countries. In Canada, only 40% of those surveyed said they trust most news, down from 58% in 2018.

Moreover, just 46% mostly trust the news they choose to get, down again from 63% in 2018.

Why has trust eroded?

There are many factors behind the loss of trust.

  • The media and advertising landscape fractured with the rise of the internet. That created a new technological and economic model. Many traditional outlets went out of business, and others were sold to entities that slashed budgets, reporter jobs and quality.
  • A focus on clicks as the be-all metric put a premium on the sensational, simple and trivial. Opinion looks like news which looks like entertainment.
  • Real and fake news exist side by side, making it harder for audiences to tell what’s what.
  • Increasingly, we choose or find ourselves in bubbles and echo chambers, and algorithms only take us deeper. We look for information that reinforces our views, and reject information that contradicts them.
  • Distrust in media is part of a larger trend of dwindling confidence in institutions like business, politics, the courts, policing, education, medicine and the health care system, and organized religion.

Looking at the widespread loss of trust, we’ve seen a long-term dissatisfaction with the way institutions operate, and a lack of faith in their ability to solve societal problems.

Many view the media as being in service of the status quo, and journalists as out-of-touch elites.

“The trust crisis is part of a broader milieu of doubts, disillusionment and desertion as people turn away from institutions they perceive to have failed them,” wrote one academic in the publication Journalism.

He also decried “the overall slackening of journalistic strength against politicians, corporations, and other powerful actors intent on undermining a free and independent press.”

A quality of life issue

The reasons for mistrust may be complex, but what’s clear is that this trend create less healthy democracies.

Statistics Canada reports that confidence in institutions and trust in media are both indicator’s of Canada’s “quality of life framework”.

We need less fakes and more facts.

We also need a population that exhibits critical thinking. One that knows when information and explanations don’t make sense. And that has the ability to question, challenge, and consider evidence and arguments.

All of that is rooted in a thriving media – mainstream media, new media and social media alike – that supports robust discussions and debates.

As a writer and a citizen, I value solid journalism. We need to seek it, invest in it and pay for it.

And believe in it.

Misinformation is a virus. But so is mistrust.

Stuart Foxman is a Toronto-based freelance writer, who helps clients’ products, services, ideas and organizations to come alive. Connect with me here on LinkedIn, check me out at foxmancommunications.com or follow me on X (formerly Twitter) @StuartFoxman where I share these blogs too. More original posts coming regularly about communications, information, motivation, writing, branding, creativity, media, marketing, persuasion, messages, learning, etc.

June 19, 2024


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