This column first appeared in the February 9, 2020 PRINT edition of The Vindicator and Tribune-Chronicle newspapers:
It’s a tale as old as, well, America.
Democrats and Republicans rarely agree on anything, and it’s newsworthy when they do.
Today, that agreement is overwhelming bipartisan distrust of social media.
This distrust may come as some surprise to leaders at Facebook and other social media companies. They claim to have implemented new security and privacy measures, and tried to stop fake news over the last few years.
They did this, in part, regain our trust and win back daily active users.
A new study from the Pew Research Center looked at this lack of trust in social media. A large majority of Americans are familiar with the major social platforms (e.g., Facebook) and many say they still use social media to find political news, even if they don’t trust them.
The study was conducted as part of Pew’s ongoing Election News Pathways project, which examines our news habits, our attitudes about what we hear and perceive, and what we think we know about the 2020 election.
“Indeed, Facebook, the most widely used of the six social media sites examined when it comes to getting political and election news, is distrusted by about six in 10 U.S. adults,” said report authors Mark Jurkowitz and Amy Mitchell.
Nearly half said they distrust Twitter, and four in 10 said they skeptical of Instagram.
Some Americans who said they get their news through social media are equally reliant on it.
“Overall, 18 percent of U.S. adults cite social media as the ‘most common’ way they access political news — relying on it more than other platforms such as TV, print, radio or news websites and apps,” Jurkowitz and Mitchell said.
Adults who rely mostly on social media for political news also had more trust than others in platforms like Facebook and Twitter. They continue to use social media as a place to get political news. They’re less concerned about the spread of fake news.
Video-sharing site YouTube was not immune.
“YouTube is also distrusted by greater portions of each party than trusted,” Jurkowitz and Mitchell said. About 15 percent of Republicans and 19 percent of Democrats say they trust it.
“Republicans and Democrats also largely agree about LinkedIn and Reddit, where distrust exceeds trust in both parties by at least a two-to-one ratio.”
Coincidentally, when Pew researchers asked voters about their trust of specific platforms, a large percentage said they hadn’t even heard of some companies.
For example, 27 percent were unfamiliar with LinkedIn and nearly 40 percent didn’t know about Reddit.
Unfamiliarity wasn’t a problem for all platforms.
“Of the six social media sites examined in this study, most are known to a large majority of Americans,” Jurkowitz and Mitchell said. “About nine in 10 U.S. adults say they have heard of’ Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Instagram.”
Don’t be so quick to equate this distrust of social media with “other” media. When it comes to trust in specific news sources, the chasm between the parties is as wide as their trust of President Trump (e.g., CNN vs. Fox News).
Still, anyone who has broken trust with another person knows it takes time to repair.
Social media are no different.
Although Facebook and others have tried to eliminate fake news, improve security and protect users, they clearly have a long way to go before they earn back our trust when it comes to politics and news.
Dr. Adam C. Earnheardt is special assistant to the provost and professor of communication in the department of communication at Youngstown State University in Youngstown, OH, USA where he also directs the graduate program in professional communication. He researches and writes on a variety of topics including communication technologies, relationships, and sports (with an emphasis on fandom). His work has appeared in Mahoning Matters as well as The Vindicator and Tribune-Chronicle newspapers.