Authentic chorus or information overload?

New insights into whether people really trust news stories on social media or not

Recent international research looks at widely-held reasons for and against trusting news on social media, ranging from valuing a broader range of views and opinions to a healthy scepticism towards clickbait headlines.


As part of our Digital News Report, respondents from across nine countries – United States, UK, Ireland, Spain, Germany, Denmark, Australia, France, and Greece – were asked whether they think that social media does a good job in helping them distinguish fact from fiction. Unlike much of the news media, which often claims this as their raison d’être, most social networks do not claim that the separation of fact from fiction is a service they provide.

Despite this, we have a seen a dramatic global increase in the proportion of people that say they use social media for news each week, with figures doubling from around 25 per cent to around 50 per cent in the last five years across the countries we survey in the Digital News Report.

We should, however, avoid conflating ‘use’ and ‘trust’. Throughout the twentieth century, people consumed news from sources they said they had little or no trust in. Today, some of the most popular newspapers in Europe are tabloids that often find themselves at the bottom of trust rankings.

This helps us understand why the use of social media for news can grow even as trust levels are relatively low. Across all countries, just 24 per cent say that social media does a good job in helping them separate fact from fiction, compared to 40 per cent for the news media (see figure 1).

Reasons for trusting social media

1. Broader range of sources and views. When collating open-ended responses, the most commonly stated reason for believing that social media does a good job in separating fact from fiction was that it provides access to a broader range of sources and views. In other words, having access to information from lots of different sources allows a consensus to emerge, or highlights where there are disagreements or gaps in what is known.

"Having access to information from lots of different sources allows a consensus to emerge."

It would be a mistake to assume that people with low confidence in the news media automatically have high confidence in social media – in fact, having a low opinion of one is correlated with having a low opinion of the other – but some people clearly think that social media can correct some of the news media’s shortcomings.

This emphasis on breadth also chimes with our other research that has shown that people who use social media tend to use more sources of news than those who do not (Fletcher and Nielsen, 2017). This is primarily driven by ‘incidental exposure’, where people are shown news content even as they use social media for other reasons.

Even for those people that use social media specifically for news, they may still be shown news from sources they would not otherwise use, with the effect of increasing the diversity of their news diets. These processes are in part driven by algorithmic selection, which means that they are common to search engines and news aggregators.

2. Authenticity. Related to the diversity of sources and views that social media makes available, people also value it because of its authenticity. For some, social media does a good job in separating fact from fiction because it let them hear the views of ‘real people’. For others, the authenticity stems from the availability of unedited content that has not been subjected to journalistic processes The UK was the only country where authenticity was the most popular reason (43 per cent) for trusting social media, ahead of breadth. Here, there have been a number of high-profile press scandals that have shaken confidence in journalistic methods.

Furthermore, the debates leading up to the Brexit referendum highlighted divisions between those that embrace and those that reject expert or elite opinion.

3. Following particular sources, self-correction, and convenience. Around one in 10 people across all nine countries say that they think social media does a good job in separating fact from fiction because it allows them to see the views of their friends and other people they know. The idea here is simply that people trust their friends as a guide to what is important, and that social media allows them to quickly and easily see what that is.

However, this is also connected to commenting in a general sense. People believe that interactivity around information ultimately helps them to understand the veracity of stories, as others can offer feedback and suggest alternatives.

There were only small national differences in the extent to which the views of friends are valued, but this reason was very slightly more common among younger people and women. Around six per cent stated that the interactivity around social media in a sense makes it self-correcting.

"People believe that interactivity around information ultimately helps them to understand the veracity of stories."

A user might post something that contains misinformation but, in their experience, other users will jump in to correct it, leaving people with a more reliable version. In some countries, the news media are often seen as reluctant to correct things they have published in traditional formats, because the corrections are not given the same prominence as the original story.

In response, screenshots of corrections issued by newspapers can go viral on Twitter, as people attempt to make them as widely known as possible. Online versions of stories are often updated to correct mistakes, but these edits often go unnoticed by readers.

Two more infrequently cited reasons were the ability to follow trusted sources (eight per cent), and the speed and convenience that social media offers (five per cent). Both of these activities require some active curation from the user (changing settings, following news pages, etc.) in order to make the most of them. Given that we know from the Digital News Report that this is a minority activity (for news), it is unsurprising that these reasons were only mentioned by a small minority).

Reasons for not trusting social media

As we saw from figure 2, the proportion that do not think that social media helps them separate fact from fiction (41 per cent) is significantly greater than those that think it does (24 per cent). Again, this suggests that many people take quite a critical approach to information they see on social media.

1. Low quality/unreliable. In open-ended survey responses, just over one third (35 per cent) of those who do not think that social media helps them separate fact from fiction said that this was because they think that the information is low quality or unreliable. This is a standard criticism of information on social media, and it echoes what is now a decades old concern about online information more generally. However, it also lacks specificity, with open-ended responses coded in this way if they identified the information they see on social media as flawed in some way, without explaining why.

There is a sense in which this theme overlaps with all of the others, or rather, the other themes in this section can perhaps be thought of as subcategories of this broader explanation.

2. Agenda-driven/opinion and lack of checks. We see more interesting variation when we examine the other responses in this category. Some referred to the idea that there is too much agenda-driven or opinionated information on social media. Others picked up on the lack of checks and accountability. These are quite different concerns, but we can see that – leaving the generic low-quality complaint aside – people tended pick one of these two as their primary reason for not believing that social media  does a good job in separating fact from fiction.

In Greece (34 per cent), France (30 per cent), Spain (25 per cent), and the US (31 per cent), where the news media tends to be highly polarised along political lines, the presence of highly opinionated information is a relatively widespread concern. In these countries, we would expect that people would be more likely to be exposed to cross-cutting information, or information in general is more likely to be shaped by ideology.

" Some referred to the idea that there is too much agenda-driven or opinionated information on social media."

In countries where the news media is far less polarised – such as Denmark (13 per cent) and Germany (nine per cent) – this is a seen as less of a problem. A more widespread concern is the lack of checks and balances around who can post information, and whether the information itself is verified. Just under a third in Denmark (30 per cent), and just over a third in Germany (39 per cent) identified this as the main reason why they have little confidence in social media.

These countries have deeply engrained norms and practices associated with professional journalism and lower levels of political polarisation, and the dissemination of information has historically been the preserve of elite individuals and institutions, although, as we have already seen in the first half of this report, some believe that arrangements like these have downsides.

3. Sensationalism, virality, and information overload. Clickbait, exaggeration, and sensationalism were mentioned much less frequently by respondents in all countries. The highest national figure was in Denmark, where 10 per cent cited this issue, but in Germany and France the figure was just three per cent. Information of this type may be frequently encountered on social media, and seen as an annoyance by many, but it is possible that most people feel that it does not stop them from being able to separate the true from the false.

Virality is a separate but closely related issue. Whereas clickbait and sensationalism are primarily the product of journalists and headline writers, virality is a consequence of the scale, speed, and responsiveness of social networks. Because social networks rely on algorithms to make rapid procedural decisions, information can go viral and reach huge numbers ofpeople with remarkable speed.

News organisations know this, and some are willing to exploit it by creating superficially popular content that will be raised to prominence due to the activity surrounding it. James Webster (2014) has called this the “popularity bias”, the obvious downside being that popular information might take the place of information that helps users separate fact from fiction.

A much more straightforward concern voiced by five per cent of respondents was simply that there was too much information on social media. Information abundance is one of the key features of the digital age, and it is not difficult to see how this might make it difficult to separate fact from fiction, particularly if much of the available information iscontradictory.

Some believe that the problem is particularly acute on social media, because it ‘flattens’ information environments, so that sources that differ in important ways are given equal prominence. Within news, this has allowed new players to gain a foothold in a market that was historically tough for new entrants to compete in. This has increased information diversity in a rather crude sense, and some are deeply concerned about the potential consequences. But, at least for the time being, this is not a concern that many social media users share.

Conclusion

We should keep in mind that just a quarter of people think that social media helps them distinguish fact from fiction. But among those that do, their reasons essentially link back to the fact that it can give voice to a broader range of actors – whether news organisations, ordinary people, or friends – and that information can be quickly added, updated and corrected. Of these, it is clear people find breadth to be the most beneficial.

However, as the Digital New Report shows, many people approach information on social media with a high degree of scepticism. The primary reasons for this all seem to relate to information quality, either because it is seen as too opinionated, unreliable, or sensationalised, or simply because there’s so much information that it becomes hard to separate the good from the bad.

While a lack of confidence in sources of information has clear downsides, we might also be reassured by this figure, as it also suggests that people are approaching information on social media with a large degree of scepticism.

This is something that is often absent from discussions about misinformation on social media. Similarly, the idea that younger people, or those with low incomes and low levels of education, are more trusting of news they come across on social media is an assumption that is not supported by our data. .

This article is extracted and edited from the full report, Bias, Bullshit and Lies – Audience Perspectives on Low Trust in the Media, which can be downloaded at: www.digitalnewsreport.org/publications

Nic Newman

Nic Newman is research associate at the Reuters Institute and is also a  consultant on digital media, working actively with news companies on product,  audience, and business strategies for digital transition. He writes an annual report for the Institute on future media and technology trends. 

Richard Fletcher

Dr Richard Fletcher is a research fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. He is primarily interested in global trends in digital news  consumption, the use of social media by journalists and news organisations, and  more broadly, the relationship between computer-based technologies and journalism