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Facebook and blogs) was more relevant, reliable and current than that on local television, which was broadcasting outdated official press releases,” she says.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.”
Assistant professor Kelly Garrett at the School of Communication at The Ohio State University, whose own social network research has convinced him “the filtering thesis sounds correct,” echoes Metzger’s remarks. Informal Internet communications channels “are certainly expanding and becoming a more important part of the media diet,” Garrett says. “Twitter users report they are getting news from more eclectic groups than previously, for example. In the past, credentials were much more important. Now they are being supplanted by ‘crowdsourcing,’ or as in the case of Wikipedia, by a relatively small group of people with the skills they need and the time to do it.
“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.”
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.”
BJ Fogg, director of research and design at Stanford University’s Persuasive Technology Lab, began his academic career researching Web credibility and “computers as persuasive technology.” (In his 2003 book Persuasive Technology, he asserts, “trustworthiness is a key factor in the credibility equation” and notes that perceived trustworthiness, when combined with perceived expertise, results in perceived credibility.) Of late, Fogg’s interest includes emerging media, which he argues are revolutionizing information filtering and delivery.
“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)