Can Facebook Arrest the Threat of 'Truth Decay'?

Can Facebook Arrest the Threat of 'Truth Decay'?
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Last Friday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg acknowledged that his company has contributed to the “sensationalism, misinformation and polarization” that has led to the public’s loss of trust in the news media. After announcing, days earlier, that the company would tweak its News Feed algorithm so that paid content receives lower priority than posts by users’ friends and family, Facebook has now indicated its intent to rank news outlets on their level of “community trust.”

It’s unclear what this means for media companies, and debates will rage around a host of questions these changes imply and the unintended consequences that may flow from what may be good intentions. But by explicitly seeking to address the trust challenges that confront his company and the media more generally, Mr. Zuckerberg is to be applauded.

Other media institutions with their own trust challenges would do well to take heed.

It’s old news that trust in the media has collapsed. According to one survey recently released by Gallup and the Knight Foundation, 66 percent of Americans believe most news media outlets fail to separate fact from opinion. Nearly half of us cannot name a single news source believed to report the news objectively. A majority feel this “fake news” problem is a threat to our democracy.

Most problematic of all, according to 73 percent of Americans, is the spread of inaccurate information on the internet through social media channels. And, yet, 7 in 10 also report getting their news from major internet platforms such as Google, Yahoo, or Facebook.

With a majority of us now getting some or most of our news through social media, truth-tellers face an enormous challenge in the form of bots, bad actors and self-imposed “filter bubbles” which find us listening – many times unknowingly -- only to news that supports our preconceived biases, thereby amplifying and perpetuating what isn't necessarily true. 

Stopping the spread of distorted news depends, in part, on educating and persuading people to consume and share news from reliable sources. But here’s the rub: there is growing public distrust in core social and civil institutions – traditional media included. Instead, we turn to those we trust in social media networks.  

Recognizing its outsize role in the spread of biased news as well as the power of community in restoring trust, Facebook is now taking a page from the playbooks of other innovators in the peer-to-peer economy. Companies like Lyft and Airbnb have become enormously valuable in the transportation and lodging sectors, without owning a single vehicle or hotel property. They achieved this instead by conscientiously setting out to build what I like to call a “digital trust infrastructure.”

By creating platforms where “people just like me” are brought together and their mutual trustworthiness established, strangers feel enabled to trust one another, at scale, and as a presumed community norm. That is, they’ve achieved precisely the feat that our traditional institutions are now failing to do. And, in so doing, they point the way forward for Facebook.

However, if Facebook’s community trust experiment is to be successful, Mr. Zuckerberg must recognize that one’s “social network” is not synonymous with one’s “trust network.” There is a clear dichotomy here. Many with whom I share personal and professional affiliations on Facebook or LinkedIn, for example, I would not look to as closely trusted in the context of news and information sharing. That those in my “trust network” count among those in my broader “social network” should not lead to a conflation of the two.

If Facebook, journalists, publishers and others are to counter what RAND has termed "Truth Decay," they will need first to identify and harness the personal trust networks within which reliable news may be reliably conveyed. Our current – and aspiring – political leaders would do well to do likewise.

For, in a time of broad distrust, our personal trust networks have become perhaps the single greatest source of power for change.

Stephen Scott is the Founder & CEO of Starling Trust Services.  

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