Public Displays of Connection: How Social Media Can Help Repair the News' Trust Problem


Excerpted from  Friends, Followers and the Future: How Social Media are Changing Politics, Threatening Big Brands and Killing Traditional Media by Rory O'Connor, just published by City Lights.  Alternet co-presents Rory O'Connor at City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco on Tuesday, May 1st, 7pm.  Event info here

Long-held conventional beliefs about social networks and the formation of social capital are now running headlong into an area of computer science known as “network theory.” The game-changing power of online social networks is derived most notably from their facilitation of the formation of groups, thus making it easier than ever before to stay in touch with more people with disparate points of view. By greatly decreasing what academic researchers call the “transactional cost of creating bridging social capital,” the tools and technology offered by emerging media enable the finding and sharing of credible news and information through trusted friends and followers—curators and influencers—thus presenting an intriguing possible solution to our ongoing trust dilemma.

Nicco Mele, who ran online operations during the groundbreaking Howard Dean presidential campaign of 2004 (see Chapter 11), describes the theory’s three basic laws as Moore’s Law, which holds that processing power doubles every two years; Metcalfe’s Law, which says that the value of a network depends on number of users of a system; and finally, Reed’s Law that the value of a network is directly related to the ability to form groups within it. In sum, Mele says, network theory dictates that “any relatively large group-forming network will inevitably create what is known as the ‘network effect,’” the phenomenon whereby a service becomes more valuable as more people use it, thereby encouraging ever-increasing numbers of adopters.

“When social capital and community meet online, the result can be a large, group-forming social network that is extremely diverse, highly credible and very powerful,” he explains.

Mele echoes Stanford’s BJ Fogg in describing his Facebook feed as “a personalized newspaper put out by my friends.” He believes “Community, trust and persuasion are the keys to both media and political activism in the future,” and adds, “Persuasion and trust are still largely not understood, but there are trends that we do understand. The first is that we can always depend on a proliferation of emerging media forms over time; another is that a convergence of communication and community is rapidly approaching.”

As we have seen, Mele’s belief in the utility of social media’s tools and technology is supported by a growing corpus of academic research. When a team at Michigan State University, for example, examined the use of Facebook by undergraduate students over three years, using surveys, interviews, and automated capture of the MSU Facebook site in an effort to understand how and why the students were using the social network, “What we found surprised us,” Assistant professor of Telecommunication, Information Studies, and Media Nicole Ellison told the authors of the New York Times’ Freakonomics blog. “Our survey included questions designed to assess students’ ‘social capital,’ a concept that describes the benefits individuals receive from their relationships with others. Undergraduates who used Facebook intensively had higher bridging social capital scores than those who didn’t.”

The students found that Facebook helped them maintain or strengthen their relationships with people they didn’t know that well, but who still could provide them with useful information and ideas. They used the site to look up old high school acquaintances, to find out information about people in their classes or dorms that might be used to strike up a conversation, to get contact information for friends, and many other activities. Such tools, which enabled them to engage in online self-presentation and connect with others, “will be increasingly part of our social and professional landscape, as social network sites continue to be embraced by businesses, non-profits, civic groups, and political organizations that value the connections these tools support,” says Ellison.

In other work undertaken with fellow researcher Kelly Garrett, Ellison’s colleague Cliff Lampe has shown that people who receive online information through social networks are more able to articulate opposing viewpoints. Lampe and Garrett’s research seems to indicate that sites like Facebook and other social networks, such as or, ironically may function better as information filters than more specialized “social news networks” such as, a non-profit community site created in 2005 by former Apple executive Fabrice Florin in a conscious attempt to “help people find and share quality journalism.” Since sites like Digg and especially Slashdot are not viewed by their core communities as primarily “political” or “news” sites, the connections established on them through a shared interest in other, less-charged issues such as technology may make them seem a “safe third place—not home, not work,” says Lampe. Thus it becomes, perhaps paradoxically, easier (or “safer”) to share information and perspectives about politics or news on them, precisely because those networks are not intrinsically political or journalistic in nature.

“You are more likely to hear something you disagree with on Slashdot than on a conventional liberal or conservative single position site,” explains Garrett. “There are more sources there that represent multiple viewpoints.” Similarly, Facebook, with its stated emphasis on personality and relationships (“Facebook helps you connect and share with the people in your life”) can also be regarded as a safe place for the transmission of news and information between trusted friends, even if they disagree vehemently on the topic being shared.

Lampe and Garrett have extensively studied the News-Trust site and suggest that it “may be the wrong model” precisely because its visitors are people who deeply care about news, information, journalism, and politics. Hence members may come to the site intent on pushing a particular viewpoint—often political and partisan—and consciously or subconsciously may actually be closed to differing perspectives and analysis. Some may even go so far as to attempt to game the system in some manner in order to further the advocacy of their own ideas and beliefs.

Cast in academic terms, NewsTrust and similar news-oriented social networks may in fact suffer because their community members actually have tight, close connections—bonding social capital ties—rather than the looser, more extensive bridging ties at sites such as Slashdot, Digg, and Facebook, which collect people who have broader interests, such as technology or personal relations, and who then sometimes share news and information about politics and other more tendentious topics.

The Big Picture

Judith Donath, associate professor at M.I.T.’s Media Lab and a faculty fellow at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, adds that in the “big picture,” social networking technologies will “support and enable a new model of social life, in which people’s social circles will consist of many more, but weaker, ties. Though we will continue to have some strong ties (i.e., family and close friends), demographic changes . . . are diminishing the role of social ties in everyday life. Weak ties (e.g., casual acquaintances, colleagues) may not be reliable for long-term support; their strength instead is in providing a wide range of perspectives, information, and opportunities.”

Donath’s associate Danah Boyd, also a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, says, “Social media (including social network sites, blog tools, mobile technologies, etc.) offer mechanisms by which people can communicate, share information, and hang out . . . social media provides a venue to build and maintain always-on intimate communities.” And Donath believes, “As society becomes increasingly dynamic, with access to information playing a growing role, having many diverse connections will be key. Social networking technologies provide people with a low cost (in terms of time and effort) way of making and keeping social connections, enabling a social scenario in which people have huge numbers of diverse, but not very close, acquaintances.

“Does this make us better as a society? Perhaps not,” Donath admits. “We can imagine this being a selfish and media-driven world in which everyone vies for attention and no one takes responsibility for one another.” But she posits as well that “we can also imagine this being a world in which people are far more accepting of diverse ways and beliefs, one in which people are willing to embrace the new and different.”

In “Public Displays of Connection,” a 2004 paper they co-authored, Donath and Boyd noted, “In today’s society, access to information is a key element of status and power and communication is instant, ubiquitous and mobile. Social networking sites . . . are a product of this emerging culture.” They explain that the public display of connections on such sites is a signal that helps others in your network judge your reliability and trustworthiness. New communication technology encourages us to “bridge disparate clusters,” which in turn provide us “with access to new knowledge.” Trading our previous, offline privacy for shared online public displays of connections enables others to determine our credibility—and by extension, that of the news and information we may then share through the network.

Emerging social media also make it less costly to maintain looser or weak social ties. Such ties, “the kinds that exist among people one knows in a specific and limited context,” are “good sources of novel information,” say Donath and Boyd. “A person who has many weak yet heterogeneous ties has access to a wide range of information.” At a time when Mark Zuckerberg was still formulating Facebook in his dorm room, they predicted that, “In the future, the number of weak ties one can form and maintain may be able to increase substantially, because the type of communication that can be done more cheaply and easily with new technology is well suited for these ties. If this is true, it implies that the technologies that expand one’s social network will primarily result in an increase in available information and opportunities—all benefits of a large, heterogeneous network.”

In other words, by virtue of being in such a network, where one’s identity, trustworthiness, and reliability can be readily assessed, people may access more credible information as well. Although seemingly obvious now, their 2004 vision of “a scenario in which social networking software plays an increasingly important role in our lives,” was clearly prescient.

Some leading academic researchers, including Harvard’s Robert Putnam, Tom Sander, and Cass Sunstein, continue to question whether social media’s filtering function can really be adapted to help solve our credibility deficit and trust dilemma. But many others now recognize and accept the early but suggestive signs of the emerging media’s filtering capabilities. Zealots and skeptics alike, however, agree with Putnam, who notes that “although we are a decade into the Internet and eight years into online social networking,” more research into the delicate interplay between trust and persuasion, and how they actually function in an online environment, is still sorely needed.

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