How Online Platforms are Losing Touch with Reality

This month, the Digital Citizens Alliance issued a report entitled Trouble in our Digital Mist: How Digital Platforms Are Being Overrun by Bad Actors and How the Internet Community Can Beat Them at Their Own Game. As the title suggests, the report’s findings point to a growing lack of faith in online platforms such as Facebook, Google and Twitter among the American public. According to the report:

  • 64% said their trust in digital platforms has dropped in the last year

  • 75% said digital platforms need to do more to keep the Internet safe and trustworthy

  • 64% said that the “fake news” issue has made them less likely to trust the internet as a source of information

Today, I want to consider the implications of these findings and whether we are beginning to see the waning influence of online platforms as an accurate barometer of public sentiment.

Over the past 12 months we have been bombarded with stories about WikiLeaks, Democratic National Committee (DNC) hacks and the alleged efforts by a foreign government to spread fake news in an effort to influence the recent presidential election. This is a relatively new phenomenon. Indeed, the very idea of “fake news” was hardly even a topic of conversation this time last year. Suddenly, the online platforms we all use on a daily basis have begun to seem more like tools in cyberwar. And while the sensational and sometimes dubious stories they circulated made for gripping television, the cumulative effect of such stories began to erode our collective trust in an independent media and cast doubt on the benefits that social media’s “open forum” is supposed to nurture.

Since Brexit, we have repeatedly seen a disconnect between polling predictions and actual results, and some wonder whether a disproportionate influence by partisan groups on online platforms is somehow skewing media and pollster perceptions of what people really think. Once again in the UK, the media has been left somewhat dumbfounded – this time by the unexpected surge in popularity of the British Labour Party and its leader, Jeremy Corbyn. Results of the recent election indicate that Labour’s surprising success was fueled in part by young voters.

It is becoming clear that while the general public is still susceptible to online distortions, there is also a growing wariness of online content.

Now more than ever, serious consumers of information are likely to turn to the sources of information they trust for their news. We have a seen a resurgence in old-school investigative reporting, with the New York Times and the Washington Post leading the charge. It seems the editorial checks and balances of the publishing world, are proving to be an attractive proposition for many people looking to cut through the noise – and lack of accountability – of online platforms.

For too long, the dominant social platforms have taken a hands-off approach, claiming they merely provide a conduit for public opinion. However, the undisputed role that fake news across social media played in the political process of the past year has forced a rethink. In a telling moment earlier this year, many in the French press refused to publish the leaked emails of then-presidential nominee Emmanuel Macron in the days leading up to the election, arguing that because the leak was politically motivated, it undermined the value in publishing them.

The risk for online platforms who fail to grapple with this problem is real. If they allow their sites to become even more saturated in fake news, unverified “leaks,” partisan rants, conspiracy theories and threatening behavior – their influence and credibility as an amplified voice of local conversations will be diminished. Of course, given the enduring popularity of social media, which shows no signs of waning, we’re a long way from a scenario where they are no longer relevant, but the warning signs are clearly there, and the Facebooks, Googles, Twitters and other popular, influential online platforms of the world will need to think carefully, and strategically, about how to maintain their credibility as sources of important information.