Musk says he can’t trust the very platform he wants to buy. Western advertisers often wonder about the costs of association with social media affected by the scandal. Some commentators have pointed out that if Musk buys Twitter and ends content moderation, advertisers could stay away as hate speech grows.
Not everyone is convinced that Musk’s real concern is with fake Twitter accounts. But whatever the mind of the richest man in the world may have had, he has brought before our eyes a question that all those – individuals, governments and corporations – who consume information must again confront.
Social media, by its very design, suffers from a serious trust deficit.
This trust deficit contrasts with repeated validations of the high trust quotient of traditional media such as print media.
Trusted media like newspapers are important not only to news consumers and policy makers, but also to advertisers, as they want to be in an environment where the content is credible.
How does a company 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 lies and hate speech?
The truth is, even Musk’s A-Team can’t figure out how fake Twitter’s userbase is:
BotSentinel, an independent company that analyzes Twitter, told US media that 10-15% of Twitter accounts are likely “inauthentic,” and Musk’s team won’t be able to detect it through a random sample of 100 user groups. The firm said Twitter does “not realistically classify fake accounts and spam.”
So many kinds of fakes: BotSentinel Founder and CEO Christopher Bouzy said “inauthentic” Twitter accounts include not only fake ones but also spammers, scammers, malicious bots, duplicates and “one-time hate accounts”, which target and generally harass individuals, as well as others who spread misinformation on purpose.
Fake Social Media Users Love Politics, Covid, Climate Change: BotSentinel’s analysis also shows that dodgy Twitter users produce most fake content specifically about the issues that matter most to people: the political system that governs them, the pandemic that has taken lives and changed our way of life, and the climate challenges we face.
Social media’s own attempts to combat counterfeiting have not succeeded: Not just Twitter, Google-owned Facebook and YouTube have attempted to combat the problem by hiring more content moderators and using artificial intelligence. But, as experts have pointed out, the bad guys have always been one step ahead. For example, Facebook’s attempts after the Cambridge Analytica scandal were deemed insufficient by several experts.
Lies will always spread faster than the truth on social media: According to a researcher of an MIT study on social media – “The Spread of True and False News Online”, published in Science – “lies spread significantly further, faster, deeper and wider than the truth, across all news categories, and in many cases by an order of magnitude.” For Twitter, this study found that fake news is 70% more likely to be retweeted than true stories.
Real people, not just fake accounts, also end up spreading lies on social media: The same MIT study showed that even real users fall prey to fake stories and are prone to spreading them more because of a fundamental human psychological trait: we like novelty, and fake news is often more news than true stories.
This brings up a fundamental reason why trust is rare in social media and not in platforms like print: While it’s human to fall into the trap of fake stories, it’s also cheap to produce a fake story – it just takes a little imagination. Real and reliable information, on the other hand, is expensive to produce. You need reporters, editors, editors, fact checkers, and other gatekeepers. They must be trained and paid. It is because so much capital relies on producing reliable and documented reports that those who publish true stories have a huge stake in earning and maintaining trust. And for newspapers, the trust factor is even more crucial – because once printed, an article stays on it, it cannot be deleted unlike broadcasting or news websites.
News consumers understand this and surveys show they trust print: For two out of three Indian readers, print media is the most trusted source of information, according to a C-Voter Media Consumption Survey 2020. A European Broadcasting Union 2017 survey in the EU showed that newspapers are more reliable than social media. A 2017 Kantar survey conducted in Brazil, France, the United States and the United Kingdom showed that the trust quotient of print media fared much better than that of social media platforms and messaging apps, and even online news outlets.
In India, the print media is more reliable than any other media: The 2021 survey conducted by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ), across 46 countries, showed that in India, print brands topped broadcast outlets in the trust scoreboard. The reverse was true in the West.
And the most trusted news brand in India is The Times of India: The RISJ survey showed that ToI is the most trusted news brand in this country. And also, that its trust score, 74, was higher than the trust score of tops in other major media markets like the US and UK. The BBC topped the UK chart with a score of 62 and CBS had the highest score in the US with a score of 48.