Caught In The Filter Bubble – And The Erosion Of Trust

August 21, 2015 • Digital News, Ethics and Quality • by

Increasing numbers of consumers are using social media platforms to access news according to recent research.

One study, by the Pew Research Centre, found that in 2015 the majority (63%) of Facebook and Twitter users sourced news via those platforms. This is significantly higher than in 2013, when 47% of Facebook users and 53% of Twitter users said they used those platforms for news.

Google, with its search engine and Google News, is another tech company that has successfully moved into the news business.

Large media companies have been slow to react to these digital trends. Some legacy news organisations, such as the New York Times and National Geographic, recently started to deliver content directly to Facebook. Others, including the Financial Times in the UK, La Stampa in Italy and El Pais in Spain, have formed the “Digital News Initiative” in collaboration with Google.

Is this a pact with the devil? It is too early to provide a final answer but new worry lines have appeared in the faces of notorious media pessimists, making them look older than ever.

Certainly there is an acute danger that the once strong and at least half-way independent media dinosaurs – the traditional newspaper publishing houses – will end up in the arms of the “teenage giants” (as Natascha Just, a media researcher from the University of Zurich, describes Amazon, Facebook, Google & Co).

However, we also know that those who consume news mainly via social networks are spinning themselves into a cocoon – ending up in a “filter bubble“ (Eli Pariser).  Allowing other users, Facebook friends and algorithms, to decide which bits of reality they can see.

In the long run this will also influence which media will be seen by the public and, crucially, how different media brands will be perceived.

The Pew Research Centre also provides interesting new findings on trust.  A team of researchers, directed by Amy Mitchell, analysed the credibility of well-known US media brands among three age groups: “Millennials” (aged 18-33 years), “Generation X“ (34-49) and the “Baby Boomers“ (over 50). A surprising result is that credibility is about the same across the generations.

Less surprising is how low that credibility is.

Among the media which, according to Mitchell’s study, enjoy “more trust than mistrust” across the three generations is Google News – besides the usual suspects (including New York Times, Washington Post, the TV-networks ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN and BBC).

Americans across all three age groups say they distrust Buzzfeed, as well as the talk show hosted by the populist right-wing radio star Rush Limbaugh.

The very way the research question was formulated – survey participants were asked whether they trust or distrust one media brand more than others – points to the historic lows of journalistic credibility which have been reached after decades of decay, unfortunately not only in the US.

Realistically it can be assumed that a loss of credibility is actually a loss of trust and this inevitably translates to a declining willingness to pay for journalistic products.

How is it possible that a profession which, by definition, has to deploy its antennae to scent out and hype every new trend, could have overlooked the obvious warning signs for such a long time?

Many journalists still seem to ignore the evidence that their own house is burning, despite the attacks against the mainstream media on the net and despite the fact that not only PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the West) followers are chanting “lying press” in the streets.

The collective burying of heads in the sand might be only explicable with support from social psychology and behavioural economics: perhaps journalists themselves are operating in a “filter bubble” – possibly, because most newsrooms don’t cover media and journalism, and because many journalists continue to cultivate their prejudices against the researchers in the ivory tower.


A shorter version of this text has been published in German, in Schweizer Journalist Nr. 8+9/2015. The author Stephan Russ-Mohl is currently on a research sojourn at Stanford University in California – supported by the Stiftung Pressehaus NRZ.

Michael Bartel et al. (2015): The Evolving Role of News on Twitter and Facebook, Pew Research Centre

Amy Mitchell et al. (2015): Millennials No Less Trusting (or Distrusting) of News
Sources, Pew Research Center

Eli Pariser (2011): The Filter Bubble. What the Internet is Hiding from You, New York: Penguin Press


Pic Credit: Nikita Kashner, Flickr Creative Commons

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