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But we’re Facebook Friends, don’t You Trust Me?

I found this great little article though a Linkedin group I belong to on the decline of trust across news and information sources, including social media. Right off the bat as I read, “The Social Impact of Friendships and Lies” I thought to myself: is trust in social media breaking down, or are we getting smarter? As reported in the article, a recent study by Edelman found that, “… 4,875 adults (500 U.S.) world-wide shows that just 25% of respondents said their friends and peers are credible sources of information about companies – a decline of 20% since a similar analysis in 2008.”

One of the reasons I value social media for my job is the ability to interface with many other people, creating good working relationships and building bonds of trust. I am “friends” and work with people I’ve never met in real life, but we collaborate as if they sat in the cube down the hall. Since the effect is not limited to social media and trust declined in the traditional media outlets, TV, radio, and newspapers as well, what is happening here?

It might not be “smarts” in the traditional sense of knowing enough facts about a subject to discern truth from fiction, perhaps it’s what would be called “street smarts.” It’s a jungle of information out there and time after time, we have seen and sometimes been burned by false information. We’ve come a long way from the Nigerian Oil schemes and chain letters that promise you luck only if you email it out to ten of your closest friends. There are Internet sites like www.snopes.com that came about to debunk the scams and misinformation that thrive online.

As annoying as receiving the same forwarded joke for the hundredth time over ten years is, there is a darker side to email that has quickly bled over to social media where it can operate on a much larger scale based on the trust in interpersonal relationships that are developed there. Email phishing scams have become sophisticated devices aimed at gathering your information for a variety of illicit activity, and I wonder what the rate of Return on Investment (ROI) is for such schemes. Some viruses have been successful in spreading due to their use of a victims email contact list, exploiting a bond of trust where people are more likely to open and view attachments from “people they know.” But they begin to break down; advancements in filtering technology and automatic anti-virus scanning have greatly reduced the attack surface in combination with continued user education as well.

However, we have been dealing with email in the workplace for over 20 years and we are still vulnerable. Yet as the technology dinosaurs have adopted and embraced email, a cultural shift has occurred and The Death of E-Mail has been predicted as younger generations have found new means of communication without it. What is worse, although teens and younger kids are technically savvy, there are a variety of evils looking to exploit the inexperience of youth. These forces capitalize on short term outlooks and a fast food culture bent on immediacy as means to satisfaction. Psychological exploits or social engineering schemes are accomplished through avenues of developing trust, and while highly vulnerable, both young and old fall victim to these schemes. Another good article covers this subject quite nicely in, “Social networking sites prone to Security breaches and Phishing scams.”

On the largest social networking site, Facebook alone, third party apps with loose security models have siphoned away countless amounts of personal information into the internet cauldron of doom… “Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn and cauldron bubble (Shakespeare, Macbeth Act 4 Scene 1).” While things are getting better on average over time, we still have a long way to go in protecting ourselves with our on-line identities. It’s no wonder that with all that has been happening we would approach these new mediums with a little skepticism and mistrust not to mention that people generally do not like radical change in the way they operate.

And maybe that is what this all is about: radical changes in the way we operate. Our major sources of information are moving in a steady direction to electronic formats. TV, radio and newspapers are either found or streamed over the Internet with a speed of information access that would have been unreal sounding just 10 years ago. Yet, just to humble us, the death of Pop singer Michael Jackson brought down twitter and strained the Internet’s bandwidth and server capacity to its limits. There are many examples we could draw on to explain, but this one illustrates the principle of rumor propagation beautifully.

Gordon Allport in The Psychology or Rumor (copyright 1947), states that the power, or ability of a rumor to spread, “… will vary with the importance of the subject to the individuals concerned times the ambiguity of the evidence pertaining to the topic at issue (pg 34).” Despite what any individual ‘felt’ about Michael Jackson as a person or an entertainer, he was known around the world and imparted something on the lives of billions. Given the strange circumstances surrounding Michael’s death multiplied by the importance of his impact on modern society, it was no wonder that every form of media was burning with rumors and speculation to sensationalize the story. Every form of media was after the eyeballs and eardrums of its audience to claim or maintain their market share of the new world. The number of false rumors that followed the death, including fake video done as an ‘experiment’ to examine the viral nature of online information sharing are astounding, and a very real reason to mistrust information at first glance. By the way, the ‘experiment’ had a point of educating people not to accept information at ‘face value,’ it’s no wonder we are trusting even less these days.

Things are not as they appear, and sometimes it takes a careful eye to find the deceptions hiding in plain view. One glorious example is the twitter account @barackobama, adorned with the symbolic “hope” logo from his presidential campaign, a profile image of him, red-white-and-blue color scheme and even lists the name as “Barack Obama,” the website www.barackobama.com and a Bio of “44th President of the United States.” This Twitter page appears to be President Obama’s twitter account and very popular with 3.3 million followers and listed 45 thousand times. However, faintly over on the margin, and my wager would not pass a 508 (American’s with Disabilities Act) readability test for enough contrast between the blue and the light blue is found, “This Twitter account is run by Organizing for America…” which is a partisan group not affiliated with the Federal Government. Fortunately they do provide the link to the legitimate twitter account for the President: @whitehouse. These are questionable tactics, but no one can deny they have provided all the facts in the same spirit as the “fine print” on a contract that requires additional scrutiny: buyer beware!

But that is the online world and we expect our news outlets to provide us the correct, factual information, right? Gone are the days of Yellow Journalism where the press of the day favored sensational headlines filled with imaginary tales to sell papers. We expect integrity in these organizations, but there are many documented examples that torment the credibility of the industry. For instance, as documented in Wikipedia, the article United States journalism scandals, “lists journalistic incidents in the United States which have been widely reported as journalistic scandals, or which were alleged to be scandalous by journalistic standards of the day.” Of the thirty-nine listed, twenty-nine have occurred within the past twenty years. But that doesn’t seem all that odd, consider the fact that we are in the Information Age. We are generating information at an exponential rate; it is discoverable, accessible and available to billions of people. The cost of collecting, documenting and storing information is dropping as well. With many people digging around, facts checking, disputing evidence, especially when the stakes are high for some interested party, things get uncovered in less time and effort than 30 years ago. Also, there may be more that someone hasn’t gone back far enough to add to Wikipedia.

But the presence of all this information, current in our mind and repeatedly reinforced by more of it has produced a breeding ground of distrust in our media outlets. But this study was conducted in the past two years, not twenty, so what might have happened in that time period that caused this level of distrust? I believe the issues may lie in two very specific areas: the economy and the Presidential election. First, the Consumer Confidence Index hit a twenty-six year low in mid-2008. A short rebound was followed by another dismal period into mid-2009. The economy touches us all in some way, shape or form, and these periods of uncertainty create the conditions of ambiguity that Allport described to spread rumors. Money and finance is especially important to most everyone, allowing rumors and propaganda, opinions disguised as fact, and lies to propagate. Distinguishing fact from fiction, this and that about the stock market, the housing market, the unemployment rate, so many factor that created a perfect storm when combined with a Presidential election right in the middle. In the United States, if you read, listen to, or watch a Conservative media publication, it will point out how the “Left” is distorting the facts and present their case as the solution to America’s problems. Pick up on a Liberal program, they present their own solutions and point out how the Conservatives are misleading. Both parties and the independents in-between take turns bashing each other to push specific agendas and ideals. Who do we trust to tell us the truth? Jobs, the economy, healthcare, war against terror, all these became even bigger issues and as campaigns go, each candidate had the right direction and the other didn’t. This was also the first election cycle to really make use of social media to reach out and all the other traditional outlets stepped up their game to compete, some even joining the fray. Yet we are still back to ‘buyer beware’ and having to dig deep to make informed decision and judgments on what we believe.

Back to my original question: are we getting smarter? I think we are really overwhelmed! It’s hard to approach the incredible amount of information that we receive without wondering what we are missing. We are living through times of uncertainty, making it difficult to objectively weigh information and process it at the same rate we are receiving. We are always forced to make decisions without ‘all the facts,’ and data we would like to have. Combined with what is happening around us in our lives, it is easy to see how we have begun to take a different approach when faced with too much information: when its take too much time to ‘trust but verify’ we lean toward ‘trust no one.’ I believe it’s a good thing that people are learning to question, to seek the truth, to not accept at face value without challanging it. These habits help protect us, but we must not let them hinder us as some things still require a little faith, and hope that the truth is there and the trust real. Still, there is a lot to overcome as we continue adjusting to the Information Age, so what can we do in the meantime? Stay engaged, keep informed, seek what is right, and don’t let the bastards grind you down!

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Sterling Whitehead

Good piece. For me at least, I don’t try to confuse all information. Rather, I am for information that is interesting and relevant to me. That helps me avoid “information overload”. Oh, speed reading and logical analysis are big helpers as well. (Thank you Kaplan).