The emergence of Breitbart News, Donald Trump and the alt-right media ecology has inspired a slew of conspiratorial websites and streaming services. Their content circulates on social media platforms and seeps into everyday life. Lies about COVID-19 and vaccine medicine contributed to the process.
A standard trope is that the mainstream media (radio, television, press) are corrupt, state-controlled, and purveyors of “fake news.” Of course, the real situation is more complex. Fake news, as well as other forms of disinformation, can be found anywhere, but mainstream media institutions are at least responsible for professional codes of conduct, official standards of basic accuracy, and legal prohibitions against defamation. Meanwhile, the volume, speed and immediacy of harmful online traffic overwhelms slow fact-checking and fact-checking routines.
Yet growing reliance on social media coexists with declining trust in mainstream media. the Edelman Trust Barometer 2022 report covering over 36,000 respondents from 28 countries found that 50% trust their media. The survey fieldwork was completed in November 2021. This represents a significant drop. As of May 2020, 56% had expressed trust in their media https://www.edelman.com/trust/2020-trust-barometer). Among New Zealanders, the decline in confidence has been much greater. In 2020, 62% of New Zealanders trusted the information they consumed. In 2022, the figure has dropped sharply to 52%. These findings stem Trust in the News at Aotearoa New Zealand 2022. This report, co-authored by Merja Myllylahti and Greg Treadwell, is published by AUT’s Center for Journalism, Media and Democracy Research (JMAD). Readers of this blog will be familiar with JMAD’s other major publication, on media ownership in Aotearoa-New Zealand. This year Trust in the news report, the third of its kind, applies and extends a model questionnaire set out by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism in its international report Digital reporting. In New Zealand, an online survey of 1,085 adults was conducted from February 22 to March 1 this year. Let me identify and discuss some key findings.
First, the engagement was high. Seventy-four percent of respondents were interested or extremely interested in the news. In terms of news sources, TVNZ and Stuff were mentioned by 64% of respondents. Newshub/TV3 was mentioned by 49%, NZ Herald online by 48% and Radio New Zealand (RNZ) by 32%. About 43% of respondents cited social media as a source of information. These figures suggest that established media institutions and social media platforms are competing for the attention of news consumers. For many New Zealanders, social media news is an important part of their overall news feed. However, it seems that the mainstream news media are particularly wary. Of the 182 people who provided feedback to the survey, around 26% said they did not trust the media because it was government funded.
From the verbatim comments chronicled in the report, one point is clear: hardly anyone understands the difference between state-run media and public media. Rather, it is claimed that the government is “buying” journalists with grants and funds, that the mainstream media is “just a propaganda wing of the government” and that “New Zealand news is unfortunately in the pocket of the government “. Specifically, most of the best-known news brands have seen significant declines in trust from 2021 to 2022 and from 2020 to 2022. These include RNZ, TVNZ, Newshub, Newsroom, the NZ Herald and Stuff. These figures should be compared with the answers given to another series of questions. The pollsters asked respondents if they were concerned about the jamming of real news and fake news on the internet. Sixty-five percent of respondents expressed such concerns, down from 68% in 2021. This decline, as I will explain later, coincides with an increase in extremist conspiratorial content on New Zealand social media platforms.
In this context, the report also revealed that around 14% of respondents in 2022 were not at all concerned about the quality of content on the Internet. There was much more concern about the reliability of the mainstream news media. In this context, respondents were asked about bad journalism (for example, stories with miscellaneous or twisted facts to push a particular agenda, stories made up for political or commercial reasons, stories that turn out to be advertising). About 36% of the sample were extremely concerned about these trends, up from 30% in 2021. The point here is do not that the mainstream media are unfairly criticized. It is rather that the level and vehemence of the criticism are disproportionate. Respondents’ criticism of social media sites was relatively less, although misinformation and misinformation online had increased.
The findings of this report complement those of Te Punaha Matatini’s Disinformation Project at the University of Auckland. In a working paper published late last year, Kate Hannah, Sanjana Hattotuwa and Kayli Taylor analyzed the spread of misinformation and disinformation on social media from August 17 to November 5, 2021.. During this period, the COVID-19 Delta variant arrived, the government introduced a level 4 lockdown and vigorously instituted a nationwide vaccination campaign. The researchers found “a sharp increase in the popularity and intensity of COVID-19-specific misinformation and other forms of ‘dangerous speech’ and disinformation linked to far-right ideologies.” Specifically, they found increases in “volume (amount of content), vehicles (platforms and apps [that] content is produced and shared) and velocity (speed at which content is produced).
These trends predate the nationwide spread of anti-mandate protests and the occupation of parliament grounds for three weeks in February and March. Meanwhile, misinformation on social media has reached a new intensity. Streaming site Counterspin, for example, provided 24/7 coverage and guidelines to protesters. Thus, based on JMAD Trust in the news report and Te Punaha Matatini’s online research on misinformation and misinformation, I make the following observations. These should inform future research.
- The continued erosion of trust in the news media will further discredit and devalue the principles of journalism.
- Lack of trust in the news media combined with social media misinformation will fuel extremist political sentiments with uncertain electoral consequences.
- The decline in trust in the news media coincides with the decline in trust in government itself. Growing disillusionment with the political system and public institutions is the likely result.
- The preceding trends are symptomatic of a deeper trend: society is fragmenting as disparate groups talk to each other.