Social media is again coming under fire for its supposed adverse effects on society. In a recent survey published in July 2022, the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (Eurofound), an EU agency focused on improving living and working conditions, reported that people who prefer social media as a news source show lower trust in established institutions, including the government. Eurofound’s executive director Ivailo Kalfin later told Euractiv Bulgaria this survey proves that relying on social media for news decreases trust in government—a statement that is misleading at best, and dangerous at worst.
Eurofound’s survey detected a correlation, or connection, between using social media as a preferred source for news and a lowered trust in public institutions, including government and traditional news outlets. This outcome is not surprising; social media allows individuals to share information freely, and gives citizens who disagree with dominant narratives a voice. One of the hallmarks of a healthy democratic society is that citizens can use multiple sources of information to form their own opinion and are free to express them. Social media platforms are simply the technology that allows for these things to take place. Blaming rising distrust in traditional media and government on social media is like blaming the French Revolution on the printing press; it is criticizing a technology that merely allows for an existing sentiment to publicly play out.
By implying that the free flow of information on social media has a destabilizing effect on society that should be thwarted, researchers and policymakers enter a slippery slope. If policymakers follow this argument to its logical conclusion, the ultimate “solution” is censorship and limiting freedom of speech in European democracies, especially speech that challenges those in power. Free speech and the public free market of ideas are messy and complicated, but also an integral part of the political system of democracy, and one of its strengths. Public officials should protect them, and not complain that they bring to light dissenting and critical voices.
As Kalfin himself told Euractiv Bulgaria, the EU is going through a difficult time. Policymakers and businesses are battling multiple challenges, including the war in Ukraine, a weakened Euro, the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, conflicts over immigration, and many others. Governments are struggling to address these challenges. In light of these difficulties, growing distrust by the public in government institutions is most likely a natural reaction to uncertain times and governments’ mixed track records. But Kalfin argues that attributing distrust to these events is “superficial” because “the uncertainty that crises create is amplified by social networks.” Here he misrepresents the findings of the Eurofound survey. The data collected in the survey merely implies a correlation, or connection, between people who use social media as a primary news source and their lowered trust in institutions. This correlation alone does not prove that social media causes its users to lose trust in government institutions, despite what Euractiv Bulgaria and Kalfin imply.
Growing mistrust in public institutions across Europe and North America is mostly caused by mounting political challenges and a mixed track record of addressing past issues. The Reuters Institute’s 2022 Digital News Report shows a complex relationship between social media use and rates of trust in established institutions. Based on data collected via surveys in 46 markets worldwide, the study finds that dips in respondents’ self-reported trust in institutions coincide with disruptive political events, such as Brexit in the UK and the gilet jaunes (yellow vest) protests in France.
Unlike the Eurofound survey, the Reuters Institute report also examined age groups separately. According to its data, younger people are both more likely to use social media to access the news, and have lower trust in established institutions, illustrating that the connection between social media and lower trust is not as straightforward as claimed by Euractiv Bulgaria and Kalfin. The Reuters Institute report also states that lower trust in established media institutions is correlated with various other factors in different countries. In Eastern and Southern Europe, lower trust goes along with higher perceived interference in the media by politicians and businesspeople. And in France, trust is correlated with economic status: economically disadvantaged groups report lower trust in traditional media than affluent groups. In short, the Reuters Institute report finds that lower trust in institutions is correlated with multiple factors which differ from country to country within Europe, with major political challenges being the most consistent one across the continent. This study further weakens the evidence for the assumption that social media use is a primary cause of citizens’ distrust in their governments.
Policymakers and researchers should be careful not to jump to quick conclusions, especially when the logical implication of their statements is so drastic, and the scientific evidence is inconsistent. If EU public officials want to improve people’s trust in the government and established news media, they would do better by proving themselves trustworthy through their actions than to shift blame to social media platforms and imply censorship as a solution.
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