Monday 16 September 2019

All media facing a crisis of trust

Google is suspending a search feature that displayed which news outlets were publishing stories disputed by fact checkers. Stock photo
Google is suspending a search feature that displayed which news outlets were publishing stories disputed by fact checkers. Stock photo
Steve Dempsey

Steve Dempsey

The media is the least-trusted institution worldwide according to the latest Edelman Trust Barometer. In 22 of the 28 countries surveyed it's distrusted by a majority of the population. Only 36pc believed that the media is doing a good ensuring quality information is made available to the public, while 59pc said they were no longer sure what's true and what's not.

But dig a little deeper and things get a big more interesting. Despite claims from Facebook and Google that they're not media companies, social and search platforms are viewed as part of the media in general, and - surprise, surprise - the least trustworthy part. Trust in search and social media platforms is down 2pc, while trust in journalism overall is up 5pc.

So it is ironic that less than a week after Edelman's study is released, both Facebook and Google are making headlines for their methods of judging the trustworthiness of news sources. Yep, you read that right: the least trustworthy bits of the modern media supply chain - which insist they're not media companies - are judging the trustworthiness of the rest of the media.

Google is suspending a search feature that displayed which news outlets were publishing stories disputed by fact checkers. The feature was launched last November and appeared in the search Knowledge Panel - the boxes that appear on the right side of Google's search engine results page. You know the ones - if you look up a city, for example, you'll see some photos, a short description from Wikipedia, geographic size, weather, local time, population and more. But if you looked up a publisher you were shown some basic details and also a 'reviewed claims' column. This told you how many of the publishers' stories were deemed suspect by independent fact-checkers.

Who could possibly have a problem with that? Well, some right-wing websites did. They claimed Google was unfairly targeting conservative outlets and giving left-leaning publishers a free pass. The Daily Caller, for example, pointed out that according to Google's reviewed claims, the Washington Post had debunked one of its stories about Robert Mueller's investigation into the 2016 US presidential election. There was just one problem: the claims that had actually been debunked weren't in the Daily Caller story in question. So Google has confirmed that the reviewed claims feature has been paused rather than axed altogether. It aims to improve and relaunch it as soon as it figures out how to fine-tune the feature.

Facebook is doing some fine-tuning of its own. Having announced that content from news media would be deprioritised in its feed, the social network then announced it would be asking its users to rate news outlets according to trustworthiness. The survey that's being served to users is not exactly what you'd call rigorous. It consists of two questions. First, 'Do you recognise the following websites?'; Yes or no. And second, 'How much do you trust each of these domains?'; entirely, a lot, somewhat, barely, or not at all.

These questions will be popped to users as part of Facebook's ongoing quality surveys. But surely such a simple survey could be easily gamed, resulting in further confusion in relation to news and the sources of news on Facebook. Perhaps, but maybe Facebook should be given a bit of credit. It may not care overly about the trustworthiness, or the commercial viability of the news industry. But it does care about its users - and it knows a lot about them. Facebook's head of newsfeed, Adam Mosseri, pointed out that this is more than a simple vote. "We are not just valuing more publishers that a lot of people trust, but rather valuing more publishers that a lot of different types of people (based on reading habits) trust," he tweeted.

It would be easy to say that users shouldn't give any credence to the efforts that search and social platforms give to understanding and ranking news outlets, seeing as trust in journalism is on the rise, and trust in search and social platform is waning. But sadly, it's not as simple as that.

According to research from the Reuters Institute of Journalism the issue of fake news is only partially about exposure to false or fabricated news reports. It's much more about a wider dissatisfaction with the information landscape. That means traditional media outlets don't have the luxury of pointing at Facebook and Google and saying it's all their fault.

The reality is that advertisers, publishers, platforms, politicians and powerful institutions are all responsible for the lack of credibility. They will all have to work together if they're to rebuild the trust that's been lost.

Sunday Indo Business

Also in Business