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TODD SMITH: How Americans decide what news to trust on social media


When we encounter news on social media, how much we trust the content is determined less by who creates the news than by who shares it, according to a new study from the Media Insight Project, a collaboration between the American Press Institute and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

Whether readers trust the sharer, indeed, matters more than who produces the article – or even whether the story is produced by a real news organization or a fictional one, the study finds.

As social platforms such as Facebook or Twitter become major platforms for news, the news organization that does the original reporting still matters. But the study demonstrates that who shares an article on a social media site like Facebook has an even bigger influence on whether people trust what they see.

The results show that people who see an article from a trusted sharer, but one written by an unknown media source, have much more trust in the information than people who see the same article that appears to come from a reputable media source shared by a person they do not trust.

The identity of the sharer even has an impact on consumers’ impressions of the news brand. The study demonstrates that when people see a post from a trusted person rather than an untrusted person, they feel more likely to recommend the news source to friends, follow the source on social media, and sign up for news alerts from the source.

All of this suggests that a news organization’s credibility both as a brand and for individual stories is significantly affected by what kinds of people are sharing it on social media sites such as Facebook. The sharers act as unofficial ambassadors for the brand, and the sharers’ credibility can influence readers’ opinions about the reporting source.

This new research by the Media Insight Project is part of an effort to discover the elements of trust in news at a time of turbulence in the media. The results offer important new insights to publishers whose digital content increasingly is reaching people outside of their own websites and apps. Indeed, the findings suggest that publishers increasingly need to think of their consumers as brand ambassadors. The findings also carry implications for people concerned about so-called fake news and for advocates of “news literacy,” the spread of consumer critical thinking skills. The findings also have implications for social networks that might be able to alter the presentation of content to give consumers more information about the source of the news.

In an earlier era, the platform by which people got their news and the news brand were the same thing. As a consumer, you watched the evening news from a particular network or read a particular newspaper. Trust was simply determined by the news outlet’s own credibility.

Today, as people increasingly get news via social media, news often comes from other sources.

In a 2016 Media Insight Project national survey about trust and news, people reported that in social media the news organization brand that originally reported the story influenced whether they trusted the content, more so than who shared it. For example, 66 percent of Americans who received news from Facebook said their trust in the original news source had a lot of effect on their trust in the content, while only 48 percent said the same when it comes to the effect of trusting the person sharing the news.

To do so, researchers designed an online survey experiment. They created a simulated Facebook post about health news and presented it to an online sample of 1,489 U.S. adults who are part of AmeriSpeak, NORC’s nationally representative survey panel.

Each person saw a health news post from one of eight public figures who often share information about health, a list that ranged from Oprah and Dr. Oz to the Surgeon General of the United States. Half the people were randomly assigned a sharer they had earlier identified as a person they trusted. The other half were randomly shown a sharer they had earlier said they didn’t trust.

After viewing the post, everyone saw the accompanying health article headlined: “Don’t let the scale fool you: Why you could still be at risk for diabetes.” This article was originally a piece written by a professor that appeared on The Associated Press (AP) website through an AP partnership. For half the sample, the article was labeled as coming from The AP. For the other half, the article was labeled as coming from a fictional source, something called the DailyNewsReview.com.

Who shared the article has a major impact on various trust indicators

The experiment shows that who shares the article has a major impact on what people think of it.

When people see news from a person they trust, they are more likely to think it got the facts right, contains diverse points of view, and is well reported than if the same article is shared by someone they view with skepticism.


These findings shed new light on how journalists and news organizations should address credibility, and how news is perceived on social networks. Among the compelling implications and inferences from the study:

» To publishers and journalists: Readers and followers are not just consumers to monetize, instead they may be social ambassadors whose own credibility with their friends impacts your brand’s reputation. It is the sharer’s credibility, more than your own, which determines others’ willingness to believe you and engage with you. This underscores the importance of news organizations creating strong communities of followers who evangelize the organization to others.

» To news-literacy advocates: In light of growing concerns about “fake news” spreading on social media, this study confirms that people make little distinction between known and unknown (even made-up) sources when it comes to trusting and sharing news. Even 19 percent of people who saw the fictional news source would have been willing to recommend it to a friend.

» To Facebook and other social networks: Facebook and other social networks could do more to emphasize and provide information about the original sources for news articles. The fact that only 2 in 10 people in the study could recall the news reporting source accurately after seeing a Facebook-style post suggests that basic brand awareness has a long way to go.

Researchers found that sharers affect perceptions more than the original news reporting source – but might that change if Facebook made the reporting source label more prominent?

Dropped Mic | Republican leaders, President Trump stumble, drop American Health Care Act

Republicans’ failure to overhaul the U.S. health care industry ushered in a round of internal finger-pointing that threatens to deepen the very rifts that doomed the deal — and carve new ones that are likely to complicate the GOP’s collaboration during the Trump era.

Recriminations have been underway for weeks, but they intensified in wake of a breakdown that led Speaker Paul D. Ryan to pull the American Health Care Act from the House floor, after it became clear to him and President Trump that they did not have enough Republican votes to pass it.

Some top Republicans singled out Ryan for blame, arguing that he did not sufficiently represent the views of conservative lawmakers or interest groups, who had pressed for a fuller repeal of the law. But some blamed Trump or his aides for not smoothing out the differences, a sentiment that has been stronger privately than in public. Still others found fault with various GOP factions and interest groups, on the right and in the middle, who opposed the bill.

All of this puts pressure on Trump, Ryan, the hard-right House Freedom Caucus and the moderate Republicans who voted against the bill to shore up their relationships and show the nation that they can achieve real successes together.

Trump and some Republicans have sought to blame Democrats for not joining their effort. And they have embraced another potential path forward on health care reform, predicting that Obamacare will collapse under its own weight and that some Democrats finally will join their calls for repeal.

To say the first major act by the Trump administration has failed is an epic understatement – and signals more trepidation, disdain and gnashing of teeth on perhaps the biggest issue facing our time. For that, the Republicans and President Trump missed a major opportunity to bring collaboration to the Beltway … and get a thudding Dropped Mic!

Each week, The Spin Cycle will bestow a Golden Mic Award to the person, group or company in the court of public opinion that best exemplifies the tenets of solid PR, marketing and advertising – and those who don’t. Stay tuned – and step-up to the mic! And remember … Amplify Your Brand!

» Todd Smith is president and chief communications officer of Deane, Smith & Partners, a full-service branding, PR, marketing and advertising firm with offices in Jackson. The firm — based in Nashville, Tenn. — is also affiliated with Mad Genius. Contact him at todd@deanesmithpartners.com, and follow him @spinsurgeon. 


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