#FactsFirstPH

[ANALYSIS] Scaffolding our notions of trust

Cheryll Ruth Soriano, Edson Tandoc Jr.
[ANALYSIS] Scaffolding our notions of trust
When 'microcelebrities' and influencers claim space on social media, their attempts to position themselves as authoritative sources of information must be scrutinized

This is a study presented by the authors in the first #FactsFirstPH research briefing held on March 11, 2022. The full copy of the research is reposted with permission.

With an overabundance of information and sources in our contemporary media environment, it becomes an increasingly important puzzle to understand how and why we trust and select information sources and how this shapes our choices and actions. In this piece, we explore the multiple interconnected factors that shape the Filipinos’ trust in information and information sources along with their potential implications. This is particularly important amid a looming national election. What information and information sources do we trust, and why? How does this shape our views about reality, about the candidates, about our vision for the country?

In 2019, we conducted multiple dyad and group interviews with school-going and out-of-school youth in Manila and Davao, to better understand the agents of information socialization (i.e. family, school, friends, technology-mediated agents) that shape the youth’s sensemaking of what information sources and evidence to trust. In short, we explored “how they know what they (think they) know.” This piece builds on the views shared by the youth and juxtaposes those with insights from our past research on the dynamics of historical distortion on YouTube and the role of microcelebrities as emerging agents of epistemic authority.

Our interviews found that young people generally have significant trust in themselves, in that they see themselves as able to differentiate real from false by actively looking for “evidence.” And when we asked how they identify what evidence to trust, they shared that they check the “source of the evidence,” which aligns with much of the media and information literacy toolboxes available. It pertains to a social media public confident and empowered that with technology and a vast range of media and information resources available, they can participate in truth-finding as “active thinkers” and “responsible citizens” within their own epistemological standards, biases, and logics.

But what do they count as “evidence” that they can trust, and what factors might influence this? The question of what factors shape how people filter what information they need (and not need), what information sources they should trust, and how they think about acting on the information they encounter, is shaped by intersecting micro, meso, and macro cultural elements.

Agents of socialization and cultures of information, knowledge, and trust

First, news and information consumption habits in the family featured prominently in the data as a contributor to the Filipino youth’s notion of “trustworthy information/source,” particularly when it pertains to political information. From childhood, the youth shared that they would be exposed to channels and programs that their parents prefer to watch on television; or absorb discussions of which news anchors, politicians, or sources of information their parents, brothers, or sisters trust, shaping their trust in return.

But as they grow, the social context that influences their notion of informational and news trust also expands and gets more dynamic. 

In this expanded social context, education surely plays a role, and the classed and geographic differences in the quality of education also emerge as a concern. Some of the respondents form good habits early on – when their elementary school teachers incorporate reading, critical thinking, and appreciation of opinion diversity into lessons, while others do in more limited ways. This preps some of the youth to crave more and diverse sources to validate information than others. The role of the family – and now expanded to peer networks—remains a connected factor here as they look to them in affirming or validating the information and informational sources that they bump into. 

The media and information landscape is another important factor. The fact that someone who has gained celebrity/influence is believed as trustworthy by some of the youth we talked to is striking. This insight alludes to Anna Pertierra’s notion of ‘entertainment publics’ where entertainment cultures play an important role in the formation of publics, and where comedic, melodramatic and celebrity cultures generate ways of seeing and believing the information that people encounter. The immediate and visibilized quantification of influence that turn a social media ‘producer’ into a celebrity contributes to this. 

It is also apparent that the varying characteristics of platforms shape people’s inclination to trust the information that they get from them. For example, it was striking how across interviews, YouTube and Facebook Lives are taken as a source of legitimacy in terms of their capacity to make information relatable and immediate. They are perceived trustworthy because they present “real” and “unadulterated information” rendered “as it happens.” This can help explain why Raffy Tulfo is perceived consistently – in Manila- and Davao-based interviews—as a trustworthy source of news and information. 

Explainer videos by different microcelebrities found on social media are also perceived to be trustworthy– the affordance of a video as an explainer of information from “ordinary people” who emerge with a podium of epistemic authority by conducting “own careful research” – validated and made believable by the quantification of support — and expressing this fact-finding in a more authentic and relatable format, facilitates trustworthiness whether or not they share factual information. Much of the critical and evidence-based sources in the country are expressed in English or in forms not exactly accessible and understandable to the layperson. These explainer videos fill in informational gaps and no matter how we might be critical of the content of some of them, they are able to translate important information in the vernacular.

Studies have found that videos increase perceived reality—seeing people talk and move on screen makes viewers feel that what they are seeing is real—more than text-based messages. This may explain preference for, and trust in, influencers and microcelebrities churning out videos on social media. They are perceived as real, and ergo their messages are trusted to be authentic. At play here is perceived synchronicity—even if one is watching recorded videos instead of livestreams, viewers feel as if what they are seeing is happening in real-time. While this improves viewer experience, it can also make them susceptible to inaccurate information.

Expanded epistemic authority

The set of people authorized to speak and be heard – previously an exclusive circle – has expanded in the social media environment, where everyone can become a publisher. In this sense, many more categories of people are able to acquire epistemic authority—or who are afforded the authority to speak and be heard as a source of information and knowledge. Some of this new authority is warranted, a long-overdue remedy to structural epistemic injustice as the breakdown of the traditional gatekeeping model may enable previously excluded or unheard voices to acquire credibility. Highly-gated informational environments where there is limited coverage of sources does not only leave out relevant facts and evidence; it can also fail to bring relevant perspectives and arguments to our attention.

But the participatory media environment’s broadening of epistemic authority can also be hi-jacked and manipulated by forces seeking to advance political agenda. Microcelebrities sprout on social media, leveraging on participatory cultures and the capacity to gain eyeballs and monetary returns. Indeed, in past research (including one of the authors’) on historical distortion on social media, microcelebrities would attempt to show that they are one with the ordinary people in finding out the truth about politics and history and thanks to social media, these truths have the chance to see the light of day.

On one hand, they feature their mundane, daily musings in ways familiar to an ordinary person. On the other hand, these images, most often pre-planned and scripted, also help build perceived authenticity. This manufactured authenticity helps build credibility without the responsibility and accountability that professionally trained information providers have.

The platforms’ role

As argued in earlier research, the intersection of political partisanship and microcelebrity is further reinforced by the platform’s affordances, and particularly the role of algorithmic recommendation systems to create a network of self-reinforcing videos and microcelebrities that weave a blanket of truth and trust towards this content regardless of veracity. It is up to the user how one would respond to the recommendation, but platforms certainly play the role of agent that limits what kind of sources and information one sees depending on what one has previously liked, viewed, and is likely to continually view and even share to other networks. In short, the platforms’ material features, such as recommendation systems, play a constitutive role in constructing the action and creativity of its users. When friends and family members emerge with contrasting viewpoints, people can find comfort in these filter bubbles to affirm and corroborate their beliefs.

The democratization of creative production on social media creates an enormous amount of content—in some ways producing good (i.e. rise of more voices, capacity of new creators to be recognized and earn)—but also blurs responsibility and accountability. Social media platforms create an environment where there is encouragement for continuous content creation, engagement, and circulation that feed the platforms’ business models but with limited and loose mechanisms for the complex ways information and epistemic authority can be manipulated. And yet even the staunch critics of platforms are wary of more regulation— because more regulation can imply giving more unbridled power to platforms or governments. Some sectors instead call for greater responsibility of users, but unable to pin down exactly how to make the other party—the platforms and content creators or their political backers– accountable and responsible. 

Newslikeness, doubt-seeding 

In this environment, microcelebrities take the role of broadcasters, with thousands, even millions of subscribers to their content—confidently doing “YouTube or Facebook lives” like news correspondents, or interviewing political personalities with frames slanted to support a political agenda. Mimicking the news genre is a feature to build epistemic authority, a style also found in other countries such as Brazil, Russia, and Ukraine

Doubt and gossip seeding is another strategy, a creative one because while publicly articulated, it is coded and equivocal, thus allowing the interlocutor to elide responsibility. Some microcelebrities do not directly say things – instead they make one doubt, punctuating their headlined accusations with question marks. It prods viewers to do further fact finding, but of course lead their viewers to other videos and content that further fan the doubt.

In the worst cases, there are videos amplifying doubt and harassment by highlighting specific media targets. This in turn facilitates a moral justification for harassment and signals a template for how networked audiences should interact with the target.

Both microcelebrities and social media platforms assume the role of “public utilities,” but sans the applicability of broadcasting ethics and codes, their gatekeeping and influence functions remain largely outside the purview of critical interrogation. They freely circulate within partisan epistemic communities while evading scrutiny and accountability. Of course there are expressions that are blatantly hateful and libelous and can be legally called out. But many creative expressions of hate and disinformation remain in the grey area of regulation because they can hide under the banner of “just expressing my views” or do not strictly fall within the platforms’ standards for strikes and takedowns.

Demonizing traditional gatekeepers, rise of anti-media populism

Microcelebrities create an image of credibility for the “fact-finding” that they do, not only by emphasizing that the videos are a product of careful and in-depth research, but by casting doubt and hostility towards traditional information gatekeepers and particularly, professional journalists. These traditional gatekeepers are – to some extent—even demonized for being “selective” in the information that they present to the public or are accused of “blatantly hiding the truth.”

It can be argued that this hostility toward the traditional holders of epistemic authority is part of a wave of what communication and media scholar Benjamin Krämer calls, “anti-media populism.” Anti-media populism discourses across the globe are increasingly shared and amplified on social media using the same schema of elite versus the people that stems from decades of exclusion.

By regarding media as part of the overall ruling group and system “that is unable to represent the people’s will,” anti-media populism expresses the belief that, according to Krämer, the “totality of the mainstream media intentionally conceals events” and “suppresses common sense opinions that deviate from those of the elite and that are not “politically correct.” This discursive condemnation of political correctness and epistemic superiority of often middle-class educated cultural elites, that sidelined the ordinary people’s views, corresponds to a hostility towards them in this contemporary media environment.

According to Jessica Baldwin-Philippi who wrote about the technological performance of populism, this implies not only the kind of claims-making that speaks for the interest of the people, but also by “speaking as the people” with the rawness and ordinariness of their interlocution. Thus, micro-celebrities serve as spokespersons of the critique of established structures and values of dominant culture through amateurism and constructing authenticity. In this way, they are able to construct epistemic authority. 

But we need to examine if such opening of spaces for democratic conquest truly makes way for marginalized views or if it is used merely as a pulpit for opinion manipulation to appropriate greater power to political personalities. In the quest to promote virtues of democratic voice, microcelebrity politics and their excesses need to be scrutinized by unmasking their embeddedness in political structures and operations.

The extent to which microcelebrities, in their critique of the media status quo, are challenging how things are and replacing them with better alternatives should also be scrutinized and questioned. As they amass clicks and eyeballs, and pocket digital advertising revenues as well as payments for personal endorsements, they are no longer just questioning established structures; they are embedding themselves into the new status quo while effectively evading questions of responsibility, ethics, financial transparency, and bias by loudly asking the same questions from the mainstream media that they are demonizing. In rallying the public into a bandwagon of hate targeted at legitimate journalists for example, some of these microcelebrities are successfully deflecting scrutiny away from their own questionable practices.

The illusion of ‘discovering for oneself

As Arnold Alamon, sociologist from MSU – IIT, reflected in a conference, what emerges is an epistemic structure facilitated by the manipulation of trust hidden under the illusion of “discovering for oneself.” Microcelebrities can claim that they have “discovered” certain truths hidden from the public, even when these proclamations of self-discovery can be a product of “disinformation architectures” or a politically motivated agenda. In turn, subscribers and followers can end up thinking that they have discovered for themselves too.  

As media educators, we think this poses a distinctive and possibly dangerous threat that implies the need for collective introspection because of its potential longer-term implications to our democracy. What can happen is the curation of epistemic communities that are resistant to alternate evidence or hostile to other sources of information. 

And this is why we started with questions about the processes by which epistemic trust and authority are shaped. The young people we interviewed, and we guess many other Filipino publics of varied age groups too, would believe that they do assess the information that they encounter and they are, to a good extent, selective of the sources of information that they trust. This implies that the question should shift from – “did you check the source of the information” to “why and how have you come to trust that source of information and distrust others?” It requires a radical questioning of our epistemic past and present amid the dynamic digital environment and expanding social networks where trust can be both reinforced and manipulated. – Rappler.com

The project “News consumption and acts of authentication among Filipino youth” was supported by the Consortium on Democracy and Disinformation.

Cheryll Ruth Soriano, PhD is a Professor in the Department of Communication of De La Salle University, Manila and Research Fellow at the La Salle Institute of Governance. She researches digital cultures, digital politics, and platform labor.

Edson Tandoc, Jr., PhD is an Associate Professor at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. His research focuses on the intersections of journalism and new technology.

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