Miriam Metzger, associate professor at the Department of Communication at the University of California, Santa Barbara is one of a New Breed of new media researchers who believes “social media can definitely play a role in trust filtering.” Metzger, whose research centers on Internet credibility issues, says, “There is an interesting phenomenon going on, where under certain circumstances, new media can actually be perceived as more credible than traditional media.” Metzger points to reporting about recent wildfires that threatened her neighborhood as one example. “During the fires here, the news and information accessible from local social media (such as Twitter, Facebook and blogs) was more relevant, reliable and current than that on local television, which was broadcasting outdated official press releases,” she says. “The traditional media was not perceived as useful. Meanwhile, the new interactive media was getting people information they really wanted and needed, in real time.”
“People want to make up their own ways of trust assessment,” Garrett concludes. “Now at least there is an infrastructure to facilitate this. These outlets didn’t even exist before.” As a result, he is optimistic. “The evidence is mixed and more research is still needed,” Garrett cautions. “But I believe we are en route to having a slightly more knowledgeable and engaged society.”
Assistant professor Cliff Lampe of the Department of Telecommunication, Information Studies and Media at Michigan State University, collaborates on research with a team at MSU, as well as, from time to time, with OSU’s Kelly Garrett. “Social networks represent a sea change for online interaction,” says Lampe. “Once, the Internet was a way to free yourself of earthly bounds. Now social networks such as Facebook facilitate a greater interplay of offline and online relationships.” To Lampe, an offline relationship of trust between people increases the likelihood that information delivered by them online will prove to be credible. “It works like this,” he explains. “If someone I like – a trusted friend — sends it, I will tend to trust the information.”
The unique value of online social networks such as Facebook, Lampe believes, is their ability to foster “looser but more extensive social connections, hence giving us more exposure to other viewpoints.” Facebook, which he and a team of researchers at MSU have studied extensively, is “not useful for close friends and family, but for a larger, more dispersed set of connections, which create more diversity and change the social dynamic,” says Lampe, “So it’s not surprising that Facebook and other online social nets are being used more and more as news filters, with a beneficial impact on both political and social engagement.”
“Previous theories about social networks are wrong,” Fogg states forthrightly. “Because earlier researchers don’t get what is happening online.” He says that unlike face-to-face, ‘offline’ social networks, online social networks lend themselves to easy group formation. The resultant looser, more extensive social ties then lead to more diverse, and ultimately more trustworthy and credible news and information delivery. “More and more we will be looking at our Facebook ‘feed’ to see what friends have posted,” says Fogg. “That will be how we queue up what is important and credible – and I will do the same for my friends.
“I’m not sure that ‘regular news’ ever brought me greater diversity and credibility than my feed does now,” says Fogg. “But clearly in the future, more and more information will be socially filtered in some way. Right now the way that happens is through the feed. But that could change – some current research shows, for example, that the use of online video is super-persuasive, so maybe in the future people will simply go directly to YouTube to be persuaded. Maybe they’re doing that in the present as well!”
Fogg’s credibility-and-persuasion prescription is not just a futuristic fantasy. “That’s how I live my life now,” he concludes. “I really do trust my feed, coming as it does through smart, interesting friends. Otherwise I wouldn’t look at the content there – just as I never look at local television news now.”
Paul Resnick, professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Information, is another leading communications researcher. In a 2004 paper that specifically explored social capital and information and communication technologies (ICTs), Resnick noted that weak ties, “those personal connections that involve less frequent interaction and less personal affection, are especially productive… because they provide bridges to broader reservoirs of information.” In his prescient paper, Resnick listed the media as one of several “areas ripe for transformation,” and said, “When choosing media… people are increasingly turning” to word of mouse to replace the word of mouth of friends. Resnick wrote, “The news industry may be poised for a major transformation if more and more people begin to rely on advice from distant acquaintances… to monitor the news and form opinions.” (He also noted coincidentally that, “electoral politics may also be poised for a major transformation” based on the use of emerging social media and networks, and even seemed to predict the successful 2008 Obama presidential campaign: “We could see a return to grassroots political organizing for both presidential and local campaigns rather than an old-style ward organization, however… we should expect to see a looser network, with information sharing and mobilization of coordinated action mediated by ICTs.”)
The conclusions of Resnick and other researchers now delving into this field appear to fly in the face of accepted notions about social networks, the Internet and how they fit together. Until recently, the consensus was that the Internet serves as an echo-chamber for reinforcing already-held beliefs, and as such only further polarizes an already partisan nation. Author and professor Cass Sunstein, the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard University, articulated this view in works such as Republic.com and Republic.com 2.0, wherein he concluded that, rather than helping to open minds and expose us to an unbiased array of unexpected viewpoints and useful information, the Internet actually causes us to become more close-minded.
(Coming next: the game-changing power of online social networks)