People trust Twitter more than the news because of the perceived “purity” and reliability of the source, rather than the actual news story itself. Helpfully, Twitter is totally fuelled by community information and conversation.
News media, on the other hand, is fuelled by gatekeepers.
Twitter is trusted for its lack of gatekeepers. As an interface and application, it more closely represents the natural flow of human ideas, language and ideas…(which repeat themselves sometimes). And, like all good things which generate their power from being centred on trust, it is this strength of community and ‘freedom of expression which has also led to the wide scale manipulation of its platform.
Paradoxically, as in time immemorial, freedom engenders choices and the infinite probabilistic space in which corruption can take place , but they only succeed when bad choices are not illuminated and exposed in that space. We’ve known these things since forever, but we still stumble into the same quandary.
The 21st century’s second decade saw Twitter – as well as the Goliath social platform Facebook – have its consciousness-by-consensus infiltrated by automated accounts, and then controlled by them. These accounts were in fact understood widely by several major press outlets, as various Government, maligned or political actors.
The problem with online trust
In linguistics, these methods of ‘implanted’ stories by actors work, because of a phenomenon is known as “weak tie theory” (which opposes strong tie theory in the study of social networks, within the wider field of social networks in sociolinguistics).
Weak Tie Theory is based on several assumptions based on years and years of observation, in that:
- Dense networks are formed of clusters, regardless of they are open or closed networks – this is simply what humans do when they socialise
- These clusters act like central units of influence, despite most networks being decentralised in their nature
- Change and movement within the widest possible definition of a network (formed of millions of clusters) happens with the agents that move in between the clusters without ‘loyalties’ i.e. the “second layer” of people who are able to imitate and converge with the communication style of various clusters and social groups
If social clusters can easily organise and find each other online, then they create their own networked groups and clusters which interact at various levels (once or twice removed). These levels can help information spread with higher velocity and therefore become viral.
Again: in linguistics we call this the weak tie.
But in marketing and social media we term this as amplification.
Amplification in a social network relies on the reputation of the amplifier
In a study conducted by the Media Insight Project — an initiative of the American Press Institute and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research in 2017, showed that:
“…more people think the story is accurate if the sharer is trusted but the article is attributed to a fictional news source (49 percent) – than do if it is attributed to AP, but they are skeptical of the sharer (32 percent).”– American Press Institute study into social news sharing
So why do people trust Twitter more than the news?
The American Press Institute’s research shows that people trust their friends and celebrities for news – moreso than credible, regulated journalistic news and media organizations – even if the news is FAKE.
Why? Because people trust who they’re hearing information from, more than the information itself.
Turns out, as a species, humans simply haven’t veered far from the cave…
Conflating the definition of social media and social network
Before the term ‘social network’ came to be 100% analogous to social media i.e. an ad-served digital publishing platform; in sociolinguistics, we talk about social networks as the integrated means within which language and conceptual change happens in communities, countries and the world. Social networks collectively are the study of how human words and ideas can spread, (or die), and why.
So back then, it didn’t seem possible – but it didn’t take long for the open network phenomenon how can a mass platform with billions of users can be moulded and changed by a ‘layer’ – be they the bots or the political actors – which sit outside these ‘clusters’ and communicate freely between them all, while also being able to ape their style, their dialect, their vernacular and their main semantic fields of reference.
In marketing, the source – be they your friend, an influencer, celebrity or bot – is called a ‘viral co-efficient’. It’s a borrowed term and idea stolen from chemistry’s viral coefficient. Anyway, a social media viral co-efficient is what we would typically understand to be an effective and authentic influencer. They don’t have to have millions of followers: just someone in a social network, or network society, who seems reliable – even if the information they post is fake.
A viral co-efficient is typically able to communicate so effectively that their ideas are able to change the minds of others, even if their opinions would usually contrast their own. (And note: usually – because this is where the manipulation happens. In an open network, everyone is open to being targeted, profiled, and attacked psychologically by means of information from a social network. We are now even seeing thousands young people around the world referred for radicalisation and fundamentalism who are “turned” online, as a result of these constant, viral co-efficient communications.)
Cambridge Analytica may have denigrated Facebook’s similar “better for news” reputation
Arguably, if the average Facebook user and consumer of mainstream media could go back in time and pinpoint when Facebook’s image in the public eye really started to shatter, it began with the Cambridge Analytica digital psychological warfare scandal. Prior to that, it would be fair to say that people trusted their Facebook friends’ shares more than the news.
Twitter (currently) makes it easier to consume news in the easiest way: sequentially, rather than in parallel, so you absorb it faster
The natural flow of ideas in social media as an almost brutally minimalistic timeline, is one that shows you information as it feeds down from the top. As long as you are following multiple sources of differing leans, biases and perspectives, then the chronological, sequential ordering of news and information doesn’t affect having a broader view of a news story.
However, if you only follow information that you like from sources that agree with each other, then you do end up in what is labelled an echo chamber. This makes the phenomenon of modern digital parochialism much more likely to re-occur: a series of the same ideas, repeated over and over again in slightly different ways, but with the same opinion, might make a story ‘feel’ more comfortable to understand to be correct, than a story which leads a person to question their own opinion of themselves or their knowledge.
Finally, if we look at these widely natural heuristics and characteristics as they relate to human social behaviours, consider how real it is that digital networks enable us to live in a real -not virtual- network society, wherein our news and information is delivered along these networked and social constructs.
In Communication Power by Manuel Castells, we understand that a network society closely apes physically close networks – so it makes sense that information would spread in the same, imitated way:
“A network society is a society whose social structure is made around networks activated by microelectronics-based, digitally processed information and communication technologies…a social structure whose infrastructure is based on digital networks has the potential capacity to be global.
However, network technology and networking organization are only means to enact the trends inscribed in the social structure.”— Communication Power, by Manuel Castells
Was it therefore always inevitable that peer-based information sharing was always going to be more effective than relying on a news broadcast put together by a journalist, or a team? Does that mean spin, or agenda-based rather than informational-based news is more likely to succeed every time, just because of how our own bias relies on the orator over the narrative?
Perhaps the fact that people trust Twitter -and social media – more than the news media, simply continues to prove this point over and over again.