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According to the latest findings from the Pew Research Center, a growing number of U.S. adults under age 30 now trust social media almost as much as local or national news organizations. Currently, one-half of all Americans in that demographic group have “some or a lot of trust” in social media to provide them the news they need, compared to 56% who trust the national news and 62% who trust the local news. But is that level of trust really justified?
After all, if the release of the Twitter files from Elon Musk has taught us anything, it’s that we shouldn’t trust everything we see on social media. As the files have demonstrated, the big social media platforms sometimes appear to be acting as unofficial agencies of the state, promoting whatever message or narrative the current administration thinks is worth following.
How much should we really trust social media these days
What’s interesting about the Pew Research data is that there appears to be a clear demarcation by age group when it comes to trust in social media. Basically, the older you are, the less you are going to trust social media. For example, while 50% of young Americans trust social media, only 36% of those in the 30-49 demographic trust social media, followed by just 25% in the 50-64 demographic, and just 20% in the 65+ demographic. In other words, your grandparents probably don’t believe a single word they read on Facebook these days.
Moreover, there appears to be a clear demarcation by political affiliation when it comes to trust in the news. For example, 77% of Democrats trust national news organizations to give them the news, while only 42% of Republicans have trust in the national news. That’s a huge 35% gap, and can’t be the result of random error. There’s clearly something going on here. Most analysts see this as clear evidence of a partisan divide in America. Republicans fear that Democrats now control the national news agenda, and as a result, they think that they’re never going to get a straight story when they tune in to CNN or the nightly newscast.
The race to the bottom
Taking a big picture view, there seems to be an erosion of trust at every level. For example, only 56% of young Americans under age 30 trust the national news organizations, and only 62% trust the local news. It’s one thing to say that you don’t believe the stories you see on CNN, but it’s another thing entirely when you say you don’t trust the local news to cover stuff like the opening of a new restaurant, the local weather, or the success of a local sports team.
Maybe comedian and late-night TV host Stephen Colbert was right when he coined the term “truthiness” more than 15 years ago to describe the way that truth is no longer black or white these days. Everything is gray and blurry and hard to define. Your head might tell you one thing, but your heart tells you another. Back then, Colbert might have been joking around. But today, the term has taken on more serious overtones, because nearly every event, every action, and every thought seems to be politicized these days with some “truth” you must believe.
Some might say it’s been a long race to the bottom for local and national news organizations. Instead of just reporting the facts and giving us a balanced view of news events, everything seems to come with a built-in political narrative. The local and national news can no longer just report on the Ukraine war or the COVID-19 pandemic. Now they must give their own take on the situation and explain how you should think instead of letting their audiences figure out things for themselves.
Is social media next?
That’s why the Twitter files are so important. They are the best evidence we have that the same thing that happened to national and local news organizations is now happening to social media. What you see in your social media feed is no longer just “facts” or “the news” – it’s a carefully curated set of content that will help you think just like the social media companies in Silicon Valley. So beware the next time you open up your Facebook page or scroll through your Twitter feed. You simply can’t trust everything you see or read these days on social media.