‘Who Shared It?’: How Americans Decide What News to Trust on Social Media

The Media Insight Project, a collaboration between the American Press Institute and The AP-NORC Center, uses a survey-based experiment to investigate what determines Americans’ trust in news on social media.

When Americans encounter news on social media, how much they trust the content is determined less by who creates the news than by who shares it, according to a new experimental study from the Media Insight Project, a collaboration between the American Press Institute and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

Whether readers trust the sharer, indeed, matters more than who produces the article — or even whether the article is produced by a real news organization or a fictional one, the study finds.

As social platforms such as Facebook or Twitter become major thoroughfares for news, the news organization that does the original reporting still matters. But the study demonstrates that who shares an article on a social media site like Facebook is an even bigger influencer of whether people trust what they see.

The experimental results show that people who see an article from a trusted sharer but written by an unknown media source have much more trust in the information than people who see the same article from a reputable media source shared by a non-trusted person.

The identity of the sharer even has an impact on consumers’ impressions of the news brand. The study demonstrates that when people see a post from a trusted person rather than an untrusted person, they feel more likely to recommend the news source to friends, follow the source on social media, and sign up for news alerts from the source.

All of this suggests that a news organization’s credibility both as a brand and for individual stories is significantly affected by what kinds of people are sharing it on social media sites such as Facebook. The sharers act as unofficial ambassadors for the brand, and the sharers’ credibility can influence readers’ opinions about the reporting source.

This new research by the Media Insight Project is part of an effort to study the elements of trust in news at a time of turbulence in the media. The results offer important new insights to publishers whose digital content increasingly is reaching people outside the domain of their own websites and apps. Indeed, the findings suggest publishers increasingly need to think of their consumers as ambassadors for their brand. The findings also carry implications for people concerned about so-called fake news, and for advocates of “news literacy,” the spread of consumer critical thinking skills. The findings also have implications for social networks who might be able to alter the presentation of content to give consumers more information about the source of the news.

The survey experiment was conducted November 9 through December 6, 2016, using the AmeriSpeak®, the probability-based panel of NORC at the University of Chicago. All interviews were conducted online with 1,489 American adults.