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Byron Shire
February 26, 2021

Our trust under attack from lies and spin

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Aslan Shand

As I grew up I was intrigued by the notion of subliminal advertising – the possibility that I could be influenced by a message I didn’t even know I was receiving. I was assured by my parents that the speed-flashing of ads that I couldn’t see on cinema and TV screens, suggesting I should buy a Coke or another box of popcorn, had been made illegal as it was unethical.

Yet today our conscious and unconscious actions and choices are being influenced in many more subtle and unseen ways than I would have suspected as a child. The Cambridge Analytica scandal has revealed the depth and length that people and companies are prepared to go to influence our ideas, voting and buying habits. It has also provided an opportunity for debate, not just on the impact of selling our data but also on the impact of social media on information, how it is shared, what sources we trust and how this impacts upon our communities.

Media trust

Recent surveys by Roy Morgan and Galaxy Research have highlighted the lack of trust that Australians have in social media channels, with the ABC being the most trusted media organisation.

According to Roy Morgan CEO Michele Levine, ‘Australians told us that their trust of the ABC is driven by its lack of bias and impartiality, quality journalism and ethics. While their distrust of Facebook and social media is driven by fake news, manipulated truth, false statistics and fake audience measurement.’

The second ADTRUST study by Galaxy Research has supported these results, revealing that ‘Australians’ trust in social media channels has fallen in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal and concerns about data privacy, while trust in newspapers, news websites, radio and television has risen sharply.’

Exploring the issue of how our ‘privacy is being sold for billions’ is a new Crikey series Prying Eyes. It looks into how each of our actions and choices, tracked by apps, keystrokes, purchases and Google searches just to start with, are being sold for billions and being used to influence us.

‘Facebook alone collects some $53 billion a year by parlaying personal data into advertising revenue. But it’s only the most visible player in a vast global ecosystem of data collectors, data brokers, advertising platforms and others who form the so-called “surveillance economy”,’ according to Crikey’s first Prying Eyes article.

While Australians are making their distrust of social media clear, companies are also recognising that it is the more traditional media services that are needed to build brand trust.

‘Brands are indeed judged by the company they keep and we are seeing a flight to quality,’ NewsMediaWorks CEO, Peter Miller, said.

‘With consumers relying more on established news brands they trust and proactively dismissing messages – either content or ads – they see in media they distrust.’

Trust in advertising also changes with age, with respondents under the age of 35 having higher trust in all media channels than older users, especially those aged over 55. Younger users, despite being heavier users of digital media, ranked ads in newspapers as the most trustworthy of all media, with the Galaxy Research survey recording a pronounced drop in their trust of ads in social media and non-news websites.

Democracy and local media

The impact of social media on traditional media has been devastating. Traditional media platforms like newspaper, radio and television rely on advertising to provide the money to report on stories from local communities to world events. Social media platforms like Facebook and Google have pulled the proverbial rug from under them, with mergers, closures and downsizing becoming the norm.

According to the podcast ‘Who Killed Local News’ (www.theatlantic.com/podcasts/crazygenius/) there are fewer American journalists now than there were in the 1970s and ‘The crisis in local news is a crisis for democracy’.

They report that, according to a study by Professor Lee Shaker from Portland State University, following the closure in 2009 of a major local print paper in both Seattle and Denver: ‘right after these papers went away citizens were less civically engaged, they didn’t call their local officials as much, didn’t attend PTA meetings. Government research backs this up; the FCC (US Federal Communications Commission) found that less local reporting leads to more local corruption and worse schools.’

The question is how do we get people to pay for high quality journalism?

Social media is not going away – and to be honest I don’t want them to. The question is how do local, national and international media organisations both harness themeffectively and create alternative ways to create incomes that can support quality journalism at all levels.

Traditional media are at a crossroads that could see their demise as they struggle to find solutions to their existence in a modern age. For the sake of democracy let’s hope they find a way through.

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