Four theories on the declining trust in Canadian social media

Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending my seventh Edelman Trust Barometer launch event in Toronto. This year’s results are some of the most interesting I’ve seen, highlighting a disparity in trust amongst what we call the “informed” public and the mass population, and the ongoing failure of businesses to live up to the expectations that people have of them when it comes to societal good (you can see the full results on SlideShare).

One of the interesting notes in this year’s Canadian Trust Barometer results was that trust in social media has fallen over the last year. In fact, social media was the only one of the five media types we examined to experience a decline in trust.

This might seem strange, given the various media scandals that Canada faced over the last year (Gomeshi, Roberts, Lang) – yet despite this, trust in traditional media still rose from 2015. Meanwhile, trust in social media fell by six per cent. Why?

Here are a couple of theories from my end:

Less social, more media

The last year has seen Facebook – as the dominant social network – continue to monetize its platform. This aggressive push led Facebook to become less and less about communities of ‘people like me’ and more replete with brands advertising to users. While the personalized 1:1 experience is there, the ability to stay in touch with communities of interest is much diminished, and there’s a saturation of brands pushing content “at” people, with a focus on sales vs helpful, interesting information.

The gradual decline of Twitter

Twitter has declined somewhat in popularity over the last year (I know I’ve gone from it living on my desktop and being constantly open on my phone, to being a more occasional user). This is significant, as Twitter was the primary social channel when it came to finding out information (does anyone ever actually go to Facebook to see what’s trending? It’s more of a secondary ‘I happened to see that’ side-effect, whereas people often specifically search Twitter for news). Twitter is still a force in this space, but the trend is notable.

Movement from broadcasting to 1:1 communication

There has been an explosion of growth in high-profile social media channels that are less-focused on news/information gathering and more on personal information-sharing – both in terms of visual content (e.g. Instagram, SnapChat – although the latter has become more publisher-friendly) and one-to-one communication (WhatsApp, etc.). As such, more and more people may think increasingly of snackable media than of more informative channels when they think of the term ‘social media’.

The growth of fake news

We’ve seen a significant increase in the number of hoaxes/’fake news’ stories online in the past year, whether it’s satire or just plain fake. Caitlin Dewey had a great piece of commentary in the Washington Post on the state of things and why the Post ended its column on fake news. At yesterday’s event, CPPIB* CEO Mark Wiseman suggested that it was because people are tired of fake news and untrustworthy sources, and are seeing through them. On the other side, Thomas Friedman had an interesting piece in the New York Times yesterday on lessons from social media’s role in the Arab Spring, with this quote from Wael Ghonim (one of the instigators of the uprising):

“…we don’t know how to deal with rumours. Rumours that confirm peoples’ biases are now believed and spread among millions of people.”

Either way, given that social media is often a conduit to other forms of online media (not unlike search; the difference being that discussion remains on the social channels and that search algorithms attempt to weed out the poor quality sources), the growth in untrustworthy news sources in general may be having a negative knock-on effect on the place it is increasingly shared – social media.

Social still matters

Regardless of the results, there’s no doubt that social media plays a significant role nowadays – it remains one of the top three most-consumed media sources and “a person like yourself” remains one of the top three most-trusted sources of information.

Still, we should pay attention to these results. The desire for something other than one-way shouting by companies is part of what prompted people to embrace business presences in social media in the first place (remember Dell’s heralded efforts back in 2005). We need to be wary of falling into the increasingly tempting trap of turning social media into a pure broadcast channel. We need to avoid being just another company pumping out the same noise as everyone else. For people to care, we need to ensure that we are helpful and honest, not purely promotional.

* Disclosure: CPPIB is an Edelman client

Dave Fleet
Managing Director and Head of Global Digital Crisis at Edelman. Husband and dad of two. Cycling nut; bookworm; videogamer; Britnadian. Opinions are mine, not my employer's.