A released by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism claims that “generally untrusting” audiences are mostly indifferent towards news they encounter on digital platforms such as Facebook, WhatsApp and Google. “Their suspicion towards news was often anchored in deep-seated beliefs about the news media as biased, manipulative, and even corrupt,” the report said.
The report – titled Snap judgements: How audiences who lack trust in news navigate information on digital platforms – was released on Monday as part of the Trust in News Project undertaken by the Reuters Institute with support from the Facebook Journalism Project.
Using qualitative analysis of 100 interviews across Brazil, India, the US and the UK, the report focuses on individuals who “largely lacked trust in most news sources in their countries as well as interest in political affairs”. The surveys were conducted by two independent firms – Inteligência em Pesquisa e Consultoria in Brazil and the Internet Research Bureau in India, the UK, and the US.
The study suggests that user encounters with news were experienced as “an imposition or annoyance” in the UK, US and India. “Obviously, it’s sometimes irritating because of the reason I am using Facebook is only for friends and family,” said Ramesh, an interviewee from India.
However when it comes to consuming news, the study claims that user behaviour differs across platforms.
‘If it is going to be true, I’ll get a message through WhatsApp’
When it comes to Facebook, the study suggests that trustworthiness was tied to what friends, family and acquaintances found relevant. Apart from this, many interviewees paid attention to Facebook specific features like comments, shares and likes, especially when it came to identifying fake news.
According to the study, this is especially true for India and Brazil. “[The] foremost thing I take a look at [is] the comments. In that, the people used to mention, ‘I have already gone through this website, and it is fake’,” says Neha, one of the interviewees from India.
For others, the blue tick did the trick. “For these participants, the verification label in itself signified that the source was more trustworthy,” the study says, referring to interviewees from India and the UK.
Similar to Facebook, users turn to their contacts to make sense of the information they encounter on WhatsApp. In fact, the study suggests that in some cases users trust information they get on WhatsApp more than news organisations. “I don’t trust newspapers or news channels on this. If it is going to be true, I’ll get a message through WhatsApp,” said Shashi.
This lines up with findings of a different Reuters released in September 2021 which said that 82 percent of respondents from India were likely to use messaging apps as a source of news, as opposed to merely 30 percent in the US.
In terms of the content, the study points out the wide range of message formats in Brazil and India, including videos, audios, images, links and PDF files. However, the study adds, “This information can be especially difficult to cross-check or verify when it lacks links to external sources…it can also leave users more susceptible to believing misinformation, especially those lacking the set of skills necessary to evaluate and interrogate it.”
On Google, the study says that people take Google's ranking of content as an “important indicator of quality” and believe that the browser gives users the “reputable source” first. Therefore, users prefer the first few results. This was affirmed by users from US and India.
In Brazil and India, Google is seemingly viewed as a trustworthy source of information. The study attributes this favourable perception to the fact that it allows people to compare information easily, across multiple sources of information.
People use Google to also investigate questionable sources of information they came across on different platforms. Interestingly, one of the interviewees from India, Pranav said, “If you want to cross-verify anything, you can easily do that – but you can’t do that on a news channel or some print media.”
The catchier the headline, the less trustworthy it is
When it comes to making judgements, the study categorises five broad areas within which users assess the “trustworthiness” of information. These include, familiarity and brand reputation; social cues; language and tone; visual and information cues and advertising.
Preference for familiar brands, and recommendations from family and friends can be viewed as self-explanatory “shortcuts” that people may use to judge information. Indeed, the study suggests that even “untrusting” users place some trust in brands they are familiar with and information which is shared by their networks.
However, in the context of news organisations, the study places some onus on content.
When it comes to language and tone used, the study suggests that some users raised their guard when it came to sensationalism, click bait and political bias. This, the study added, happened “especially when encountering specific news organisations about which they held pre-existing attitudes.”
Across countries under study, users said that the catchier a headline was, the less trustworthy they found it. Apart from this, such headlines, the study says, raised suspicion on the accuracy of the information and “intentions behind the information, whether driven by a political or commercial agenda or both.”
Similarly, the study says that usage of images is an “important indicator” of how credible the information is deemed. “Many inferred on the basis of the images whether or not news organisations had directly witnessed the things they were reporting on,” the study says.
Highlighting the role of advertising, the study claims that sponsored posts, messages or search results played a role in how much interviewees trusted content. “Most frequently, people viewed advertising as something to be skipped over or ignored…Sponsored posts were often approached as intrinsically suspect, given that they were seen as profit-driven, rather than presented for their reliability or relevance,” the study states.
“Reaching these audiences [untrusting] may require more sustained and consistent efforts around branding and tending more carefully to the precise ways in which stories are exhibited in digital spaces,” the study states.
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