Facebook Is in a Trust Crisis

Public statements and Edelman study reveal lack of trust in social media

A new Edelman study argues that trust in media has eroded in countries worldwide. Getty Images

Trust is a tricky thing. Do you trust that someone is telling you the truth? Do you trust them with your secrets? Do you trust that they will continue to behave in a similar way tomorrow as they do today? Do you trust that they are trying to do the right thing?

If there were any doubt that Facebook is in a trust crisis, it was wiped away by a series of defensive, apologetic blog posts from the company on Monday. In the most frank of the posts, product manager Samidh Chakrabarti identifies foreign interference, misinformation and political polarization as three aspects of social media that threaten not just trust in Facebook, but in democracy. All three, Chakrabarti admits, played an outsized role in the 2016 US Presidential election, and they pose a danger for democratic elections to come.

On Tuesday, COO Sheryl Sandberg told a Brussels audience that the company would do more to boost privacy and prevent abuse on its site, including hiring 20,000 people by the end of the year to monitor and remove harmful content, plus a corresponding investment in artificial intelligence.

“We know that tech companies need to do better and that we at Facebook need to do better. We have a lot to improve,” Sandberg said. “We have not done enough to stop abuse of our technology.”

Trust in media platforms is collapsing

Why is Facebook concerned? A new Edelman study argues that trust in media has eroded in countries worldwide. The sharpest year-over-year decline in overall trust in institutions has been in the United States, which is in a “trust collapse.” Social platforms like Facebook and search platforms like Google are viewed as part of the media in general and as the least trustworthy part.

While platforms were briefly seen as more trustworthy than journalism, platforms now have a widening credibility gap, as users worry about false information and their own ability to sort good sources from bad. In all but a few countries, when it comes to trust in media, social media has gone from being part of the solution to the core of the problem.

Edelman’s trust study illuminates the dilemmas faced by Facebook and other social media platforms. Increasingly, they’re identified with the news and entertainment media they distribute; they provide information to an audience that’s increasingly disconnected from the news and a connected audience that’s increasingly skeptical of all media. They’re vulnerable to manipulation by bad actors, who exploit news discovery algorithms for their own ends. They take the blame for news failures and the losses of trust that result. Facebook’s changes to its News Feed could be seen as a version of Edelman’s suggested remedy for this trust collapse: guard information quality, protect consumers, and safeguard privacy. Facebook’s defensive crouch might be its best strategy as it seeks to regain its users’ trust.

To be fair, Edelman’s 2018 Trust Barometer has little good news for anyone, apart from isolated sectors in individual countries. (As a company, it’s known for its skills at crisis response and management; it’s no small wonder it’s equally capable of identifying a crisis that demands a response.) But the picture of trust in social media platforms is especially bleak.

Media is now the least trusted institution worldwide, and distrusted by a majority of the population in 22 of the 28 countries surveyed. Out of those surveyed, 63 percent say they can’t tell the difference between good journalism and rumor or falsehoods, with 59 percent saying this process is becoming harder. Only 36 percent say that media is doing a good or very good job of guarding information quality, with 59 percent saying that because of media’s failures, they’re no longer sure what’s true and what’s not.