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Negative social media voices can erode trust in news media

Amid rising concerns about low public trust in mainstream media institutions, a new study found that real-life and online social interactions can strongly influence a person’s trust in newspaper, TV and online journalism – but when it comes to online interactions, negative and cynical views are the most influential, writes Dr Bob Murray.

The study, published in the Journal of Communication, surveyed 350 students at a group of residential living-learning centers at Rutgers University in which students with similar academic disciplines live in the same dorms and take classes together, thus forming strong social connections.

Over the course of a semester, the researchers found that the strongest social influences on a student’s trust in news media come from face-to-face interactions with politically like-minded people. But social media interactions with online contacts were different. Students’ views were strongly influenced by online contacts who distrusted the news media, and not by those who had high levels of trust in traditional news media.

What the researchers say

“With face-to-face interaction, we can choose our conversation partners, but we receive their views without artificial filters and might be swayed by either positive or negative views. But on social media, we can selectively pay attention to some of the stories shared with us and ignore others. People have a known negativity bias, and that makes it more likely that we will notice more the cynical and disparaging posts,” said the study’s lead author. “This can make it harder to step back and evaluate what we’re reading online, and to separate opinion from fact and bias from well-reasoned arguments.”

The students answered surveys about their online and offline social networks, and their levels of trust in news media, before the school year began, and again after one semester. Their scores on media trust changed considerably between the first and second surveys.

“The erosion of trust in mainstream news media, especially amid increasing political polarization in the country, large-scale disinformation campaigns and attacks on the press from political elites, is a very real concern for our society,” the lead author said. “Most of us like to think that we are exposed to a balanced set of views. The truth is that we are more influenced by people who agree with us and share our political opinions. Findings about the outsized influence of cynical views online are also concerning, especially given how much of our social interactions take place on the internet.”

So, what?

Humans have always had an inbuilt bias towards negativity – it helped keep us alive in our early days. Paradoxically we also have a trust bias – we tend to trust people, especially those with whom we share a lot in common. We see them as members of our “tribe” and tribe is based on commonality.

Put the two biases together and the result now is not protection but manipulation by the online conspiracy peddlers and the cynics. Sad really.

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“Kindness is the language that the deaf can hear and the blind can see.” – Mark Twain