Musk is saying he cannot trust the very platform he wants to buy. Advertisers in the West often wonder about the costs of associating with scandal-hit social media. Some commentators have pointed out that if Musk were to buy Twitter and end content moderation, advertisers may stay away as hate speech flourishes.
Not everyone is convinced that Musk’s real concern is fake Twitter accounts. But whatever may be on the mind of the world’s richest man, he has put front and square a question that everyone – people, governments and businesses – who consumes information must again confront.
Social media inherently, by its very design, suffers from a serious trust deficit.
That trust deficit contrasts with repeated validations of the high trust quotient of traditional media like print.
Trusted media like newspapers matter not just to news consumers and policymakers, but also to advertisers – because they want to be in an environment where content is credible.
How does a business know it’s getting its money’s worth if a significant portion of a social media platform’s users are fake, or run by bots?
What is the reputational cost of advertising on platforms associated with falsehoods and hate speech?
Truth is, even Musk’s A-Team may not figure out how much of Twitter’s user base is fake:
BotSentinel, an independent firm that analyses Twitter, told American media that 10% to 15% of Twitter accounts are likely ‘inauthentic”, and that Musk’s team won’t be able to catch this out via random sampling of groups of 100 users. The firm said Twitter is not “realistically classifying false and spam accounts”.
So many kinds of fakery: BotSentinel’s founder and CEO Christopher Bouzy said “inauthentic” Twitter accounts include not just fakes but also spammers, scammers, nefarious bots, duplicates, and “single-purpose hate accounts”, which typically target and harass individuals, along with others who spread disinformation on purpose.
Fake social media users love politics, Covid, climate change: BotSentinel’s analysis also shows that dodgy users of Twitter produce most fake content specifically on those issues that are most important to people: the political system that governs them, the pandemic that has taken lives and changed how we live, and climate challenges that we must confront.
Social media’s own attempts to curb fakery hasn’t succeeded: Not just Twitter, Facebook and Google-owned YouTube have tried to combat the problem by hiring more content moderators and using artificial intelligence. But, as experts have pointed out, villains have always been one step ahead. For example, Facebook’s attempts after the Cambridge Analytica scandal have been deemed insufficient by several experts.
Falsehoods will always spread faster than truth on social media: According to a researcher in an MIT study on social media – “The Spread of True and False News Online”, published in Science – “falsehood diffuses significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth, in all categories of information, and in many cases by an order of magnitude”. For Twitter, this study found false news stories are 70% more likely to be retweeted than accurate stories.
Real people, not just fake accounts, also end up spreading falsehoods on social media: The same MIT study showed even genuine users fall prey to false stories and that they are prone to propagate them more because of a basic human psychological trait: we like novelty, and false news is often more novel than true stories.
This brings up a fundamental reason why trust is scarce in social media and not in platforms like print: If it’s only human to fall for false stories, it’s also cheap to produce a false story – it just takes a little imagination. Real, trusted news is, in contrast, expensive to produce. You need reporters, copyeditors, editors, fact-checkers and other gate-keepers. They have to be trained and paid. It’s because so much capital is riding on producing reliable, researched reports that those in the business of publishing true stories have a huge stake in gaining and retaining trust. And for newspapers, the trust factor is even more crucial – because once it’s printed, a story stays on, it can’t be removed unlike in broadcasting or on news websites.
News consumers understand this, and surveys show they trust print: For two of three Indian readers, print is the most trusted news source, as per a C-Voter Media Consumption Survey 2020. A European Broadcasting Union 2017 survey in the EU showed newspapers are more trusted than social media. A Kantar 2017 survey conducted in Brazil, France, the US and the UK, showed the trust quotient of print media outlets has fared far better than that of social media platforms and messaging apps, and even web news outlets.
In India, print is trusted more than any other media: The 2021 survey by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ), across 46 countries, showed that in India print brands dominated broadcast outlets in the trust score table. The reverse was true in the West.
And India’s most trusted news brand is The Times of India: The RISJ survey showed ToI is the most trusted news brand in this country. And also, that its trust score, 74, was higher than the score of trust toppers in other major media markets like the US and the UK. BBC topped the British chart with a score of 62 and CBS scored highest in the US with a score of 48.