Trust in Social Media

In the context of increased regulation and tightened content moderation, the social media sector sees the first rise in trustworthiness since its inclusion in the Ipsos Trustworthiness Monitor.

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  • Chantal d'Offay Corporate Reputation
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The past few years have seen social media’s reputation increasingly mired by a myriad of issues ranging from misinformation and fake news to concerns about transparency, polarisation, cyberbullying, and child safety – the list goes on.

It is no surprise then that the sector has come to be seen as the least trustworthy of those measured in Ipsos’ Global Trustworthiness Monitor and continues to sit bottom this year alongside the Government. Overall, less than a quarter (22%) of the global public think the sector is trustworthy.

Trust in Sectors - Ipsos

In tandem with growing concern over the harms of social media, the past year has seen several antitrust regulatory landmarks for the wider tech sector with the intention of improving transparency, online safety, and content moderation, among other issues. It is in this context that we now see the first global upward trend in the perceived trustworthiness of social media, a total increase of 6 percentage points (22%, 2022 vs 16%, 2021).

The link between rising trustworthiness and increased regulation is noteworthy, especially since social media is the sector which the highest proportion of the global public thinks is too little regulated (43%). A recent Ipsos study also found that a majority globally agree that government policies to control the production (52%) sharing (54%) of online content would improve trust in the internet.

Regulation by sectors - Ipsos

Chief among the regulatory landmarks of the past year was the much-awaited flagship legislation which the EU agreed in 2022 – the Digital Services Act and the Digital Markets Act – pitched to set a precedent for tech and social media regulation standards globally. Likewise, the UK government has announced plans to publish its much-anticipated Digital Markets, Competition and Consumer Bill, while the Online Safety Bill returned to parliament for its third reading in December.

In the US there have been somewhat tentative steps, although there are signs that regulation is tipped to increase going forward. A new California law is seeking to mandate increased transparency from social media companies, while the US Supreme Court blocked a Texas law that would limit their content moderation decisions.

With these long-awaited regulatory developments, we are now seeing parallel growth in EMEA and the Americas in the perceived trustworthiness of social media companies, each going up from 15% in 2021 to 19% in 2022.

However, trustworthiness is increasing by higher margins in APAC (30%, 2022 vs 22%, 2021) compared to EMEA and the Americas – regions where advocacy for free speech remains contested in the context of content moderation practices – despite the EU being a regulatory cradle for the wider tech sector.

APAC has nonetheless seen a drive towards increased or reformed regulation over the past year. Japan, for example, toughened its penalties for cyberbullying, and along with the EU and South Korea, announced plans for Metaverse regulation.

In the wake of the geopolitical tensions stirred up by the War in Ukraine, India saw a significant consolidation of technology trade deals with both the US and the EU. These came in the form of the EU-India Trade and Technology Council, and the U.S.-India Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership, which aim to address the challenges around trust and technology. Conversely, in China – which sees the highest levels of trustworthiness in social media globally – the government has signalled intentions to ease tech regulations in an effort to boost the economy.

When we look at the European markets, it is Great Britain where the trustworthiness increases by the largest margin – a 6 percentage point jump. Although by no means massive, it potentially indicates a level of confidence in the burgeoning post-Brexit legislation, and which the UK government has anticipated as a ‘milestone in the fight for a new digital age’.

It is also worth noting that in Great Britain there is more appetite for social media regulation. A majority (59%) think the sector is too little regulated (vs 43% globally), and there are calls for more transparency, safety, and content moderation with questions around the algorithm-generated feeds.

While social media is still the least trustworthy sector, its modest growth in trustworthiness shows trust is rising alongside better regulation: it is clear the public are beginning to feel more at ease with a set of standards for industry practice being established. That said, social media companies will have to work harder to build trust in major EU markets such as France and Belgium where a majority feel the sector is too little regulated (France, 62%; Belgium, 58%) and where trustworthiness has also increased by smaller margins or not at all.

But it wouldn’t be fair to put increasing trustworthiness entirely down to regulatory and legislative action. Social media companies have also anticipated the rising temperature of the regulatory environment and made significant improvements to their safety policies. Meta for example recently received an accreditation from the Media Rating Council (MRC) for their content safety efforts. And, over the past year, we’ve seen a tightening of content moderation practices from most of the major social media players, including the introduction of new user-led safety features such as report buttons to give users greater control over flagging unreliable or harmful content.

It is exactly this spear-headed action – from both government and social media companies that is necessary to shift public opinion. Given less than half globally (46%) think it is the job of government to fix society’s problems, a larger proportion feel businesses also need to play a role. For social media companies, the critical step in this has been to address misinformation and harmful content by dialling up content moderation.

With this, social media companies have increased globally in almost all drivers of trustworthiness. So, while a growing proportion think social media companies would take advantage of them if they could (51% in 2022 vs 47% in 2021), far more now agree that they behave responsibly (31% in 2022 vs 24% in 2021).

Social media trust drivers - Ipsos

While this can give us some optimism that regulatory pressures are taking effect to tighten content moderation practices, trust is still critically low across most markets, particularly in the major European markets and in the US. Ultimately, this ‘new digital age’ looks to be only just seeing its sunrise creeping over the horizon and social media companies will have to work harder to gain trust, particularly where democratic principles are at the forefront of regulatory movement.

This is all notwithstanding one major fly in the social media ointment – the impact of Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter on the trust landscape. Musk has been notoriously outspoken against content moderation, proclaiming himself a “free speech absolutist”. Some of his first controversial steps were to curtail Twitter’s content moderation policies and introduce paid account verification as a solution. But as we’ve seen, markets did not respond well. The move was met with an advertising exodus and brands feeling unsure about the reputational impact of any association with unchecked content.

It remains to be seen exactly what impact Musk’s Twitter will have on the wider climate of trust in social media companies, but it is clear from the backlash against his decisions that loosening content moderation does not lead to increased public confidence, or more profits.

The author(s)
  • Chantal d'Offay Corporate Reputation

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