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Navigating the Tightrope Between Trust and Critical Thinking in News Consumption

When a reader encounters a piece of information, their levels of trust in the news in general and the news source specifically are likely to affect how they will treat the information they are reading. This creates an interesting conundrum which TITAN is exploring: is trust in the news a good or a bad thing? 


When people decide to engage critically with a piece of information, trust in the ‘alternative’ information sources becomes key: what makes them trust any alternative sources above the original information? Another conundrum: what if citizens trust untruthful information? 


Finally, in the process of critically assessing information, readers need to rely on their own critical skills to assess information. Ultimately, they will still need to trust a piece of information to be truthful, and for that, trust their own judgement.   


Clearly, trust or distrust in the news is likely to affect the way people deal with information online. Hence, as part of TITAN's literature review, before looking at the cognitive processes that affect citizens’ ability to critically assess information, we looked at the socio-political factors shaping citizens’ dispositions of trust or distrust towards information, and subsequently their capacity to critically engage with it. This blog outlines some of the initial findings:

Three friends looking at a computer screen

The struggle with trust in news:

The ideal of an informed populace, one that comprises logical, information-seeking, politically involved citizens, underlies the focus on fact-checking and critical thinking as a response to disinformation. Even though this perspective has been challenged in the past, this viewpoint is prevalent among policymakers, scholars, and newsrooms. Will this opinion still hold true in light of the "global democratic recession" characterized by the rise in support for right-wing nationalist parties, a serious political crisis in the EU, and the unsettling political theatre of the former US president, among other things? 


The lack of accountability in the media system is at the centre of this crisis-like feeling. According to Van Aelst et al., the emergence of partisan media poses a significant threat to the environment in which political information is produced because it creates "opportunity structures for selective exposure based on political attitudes and beliefs" as opposed to factual data. In its most radical formulation, this implies that facts and the truth are irrelevant. The current distributed media environment appears to further amplify individuals who practice "post-truth politics," which undermines the democratic public sphere and fosters social conflict. 


At this point, trust comes into play. According to Strömbäck et al., if the public does not use or trust the new information, it will be difficult to achieve the democratic ideal of an educated citizenry. Overall previous research suggests that media trust is associated with greater use of news media while media distrust is associated with greater use of non-mainstream news sources, but that the relationship between media trust and media use is quite modest. 


We also know that news consumption is not always a rational and informative act driven by a desire to seek knowledge. It can also be motivated by factors like distraction, emotional attachment, and habit. In turn, this can result in people consuming news they don't trust, either because their desire for information outweighs their distrust or because they prioritise convenience over trustworthiness. This raises questions about the idea of an informed citizenry and the centrality of trust in news media for a democratic and factual society, or a as Fisher states: 


“Relying on the assumption that the news consumer will interpret trust based on traditional conceptions of reliability and accuracy bound up in the ideal of the informed citizen, does not adequately accommodate how and why people are accessing news media.” 


The kind of citizenship she is hinting at is one with “an orientation towards a public world, including politics and broader public issues, beyond matters of purely private concern” . Such a view on citizenry adheres much more to the notion of a monitorial citizen. 


Previous studies have primarily focused on how news contributes to people's sense of identity as democratic citizens in electoral politics and formal democratic settings (such as studies by Couldry et al., Ekström et al., and Hovden & Moe. However, it is important to note that news can also serve as a means of connecting people on a cultural level, for instance within the workplace, neighbourhood, or family. 

The ambivalence of trust in news:

Trust as something to strive for in a healthy news ecosystem, is not as straightforward as we might think. To trust someone or something always requires a leap of faith, and this is not always reconcilable with the critical thinking expected from savvy news users. Let us unpack this tension to fully understand its ramifications for the development of a tool such as TITAN. 

typewriter spelling out fake news


To trust or not trust in news:

As Strömbäck et al., suggest, informative news media will hardly lead to the democratic ideal of an informed citizenry if citizens do not consume or do not trust the news. Indeed, trust in news media seems a prerequisite for people to be willing to accept the information media convey.  


One condition for a trusted relationship between two parties to be achieved is the rational knowledge that the parties involved will perform a particular action. In general, citizens make a rational assessment when they trust media: based on the public discourse on news media and the knowledge that the information if provided by experienced and trained professionals abiding by a deontological code, they have good reason to believe that the information provided is largely truthful. 


A second condition, however, is an element of commitment, a leap of faith that momentarily brackets out the lack of rational knowledge we have on the fact that the said action will actually be performed. It is this leap of faith that leads citizens to consume news – from media they trust at least – without questioning each story they encounter on an individual basis: they believe that the action of providing accurate information will follow. It is also this leap of faith that seems to conflict with the notion of critical thinking, or at least how it is often put forward in media literacy, namely as the reflex to not take for granted the information offered by the media.  


An interesting conundrum indeed. Citizens need to believe the news and news media for them to fulfil their public role, but at the same time are thought to always be critical towards it. Trust is important, but it is also necessary to be cautious with trust and not blindly trust others. Being too trusting can lead to an unequal and unbalanced relationship, so it's important to maintain a level of scepticism towards others. The key here is the following: distrust isn’t the opposite of trust, but an essential part of its practice. 


This shows how ambivalent the notion of trust in news is. Admittedly, a certain level of distrust is what is fuelling critical thinking. But we know from research that there is a strong link between low trust in the media and a preference for alternative news sources. TITAN will need to consider how to help citizens to think critically while at the same time not undermining the relations of trust between citizens and truthful news sources. 


To trust your gut:  

The idea of remaining critical towards information is a widely supported in media literacy education. When teachers teach students to find reliable information, they teach them to question the source of the information and consider factors such as the credibility of the publisher and potential biases of the author. One important perverse effect of promoting critical thinking, however, is that it can lead citizens to trust their gut above truthful sources. Danah Boyd points out in 'Did media literacy backfire?' how the above-mentioned approach assumes that reputable sources like the New York Times, scholarly journals, and experts with advanced degrees are generally considered trustworthy. But this is not always the case, for example amongst conservatives who see the mainstream media as too liberal, amongst religious people that believe in God above science, or amongst working people that see degrees as a weapon of oppressing elites. 


The combination of building media literacy around the notion of it being one’s personal responsibility to question the information they are receiving and finding out the truth for themselves and a distrust of media and scientific sources, according to Boyd, creates a dynamic that is potentially directing citizens towards untruthful sources. Left to their own devices, citizens are quick to accept the information that fits their belief system and quick to trade evidence, reason and facts for experience, faith and alternative evidence. To cite Boyd: 


“No matter what world view or way of knowing someone holds dear, they always believe that they are engaging in critical thinking when developing a sense of what is right and wrong, true and false, honest and deceptive. But much of what they conclude may be more rooted in their way of knowing than any specific source of information. If we’re not careful, “media literacy” and “critical thinking” will simply be deployed as an assertion of authority over epistemology.” 


For TITAN, this perverse effect is important to consider, as the premise of the project is precisely to help citizens assess information through critical thinking. A reflection is needed on how to confront users with their own dispositions and biases in order for TITAN not to become an instrument that is strengthening existing biases. 


To trust untruthful information:

A consequence of people following their gut feelings when assessing information is that they might start to trust untruthful information. A good example of the perverse effect of a too trusting relationship with information providers are the many alternative media, populist politicians and fearmongers on any side of the political spectrum that all mastered ways to gain people’s trust, regardless of the truth. 


Here too, we must realise that the way people engage with news is not always an instrumental practice driven by a rational, informative and selective orientation towards the media, but can also be more ritual, driven by distraction, affection and habits. This can even lead to people using news they do not trust, e.g., when their urge to know the latest developments of a story is higher than their distrust in the news or their orientation towards convenience leads them to choose less trusted over more trusted news. 


More broadly speaking, it is important to acknowledge the importance of emotion in how citizens deal with information, which is certainly not a new element, but one that can easily be overlooked, especially when promoting critical thinking. As Beckett and Deuze argue, research tells us that people respond to emotions, rather than ideas or facts. Networked technologies have further amplified this, as various kinds of information, ranging from professional journalism to opinions of peers, now inhabit the same digital spaces, best exemplified by the social media news feed. In such a news feed, Papacharissi suggests, emotion, drama, opinion, and news are blended in a manner that departs from the conventional deliberative logic and aligns with emotion.  


TITAN, in the way it seeks to help people in thinking critically, will need to be aware of the affective dimension of networked publics, especially if we aim to be accessible to people right from the digital spaces, they reside in.   


The good the bad and the trusted:

When it comes to news and information, trust is an ambiguous concept. Trust and distrust are certainly not opposites. Trust without distrust can lead to blind trust in untruthful news sources. Distrust without trust can lead to disengagement from news, and the public sphere altogether. The best approach lies somewhere in the middle, and we actually see this reflected in people’s news use. 

scrabble tiles spelling trust

 Schwarzenegger talks about pragmatic trust to describe how “users pragmatically confide in specific news sources in their repertoire, even if sceptical of media to varying degrees”. People realise that they need information, and that they cannot question everything all the time. The author further shows that this pragmatism applies to various degrees, ranging from naïve to informed. The latter’s critical stance is based on knowledge of the news production process and the biases it can entail, the former’s on the lack of such knowledge and a more gullible attitude towards institutions and authorities. Also interesting, is that Schwarzenegger sees pragmatic trust emerge amongst both mainstream and alternative media focused news users, which shows that citizen turning to alternative media should not be put away as uncritical. 


On the contrary, following the argumentation of Boyd laid out above, many of those turning to alternative media might come to that point because of critical thinking. They follow what they have been told through media literacy education: be critical and do your own research. When developing critical thinking programs or tools, it can therefore be important to picture your ideal user as a twin: the more conventional one committed to a way of knowing that is rooted in evidence, reason and facts, and the more alternative one committed to another way that is rooted in experience, faith and non-scientific evidence. They diverge in the way they come to accept in formation, but they are equal in both considering their reasoning to be a form of critical thinking.  


Again, referring to Danah Boyd again, it is important to realize that critical thinking can also be weaponized by anti-democratic forces, e.g. through what is known as “red pilling”: “[i]n some online communities, taking the red pill refers to the idea of waking up to how education and media are designed to deceive you into progressive propaganda. In these environments, visitors are asked to question more. They’re invited to rid themselves of their politically correct shackles. There’s an entire online university designed to undo accepted ideas about diversity, climate, and history. Some communities are even more extreme in their agenda. These are all meant to fill in the gaps for those who are opening to questioning what they’ve been taught.”   


It is therefore important for us to keep in mind when developing critical thinking tools which would qualify as media literacy education, that such approaches have long focused on personal responsibility. This can not only imbue individuals with a false sense of confidence in their skills, but also put the onus of monitoring media effects on the audience, rather than media creators, social media platforms, or regulators. TITAN will need to take into consideration this ambivalence when developing its AI platform.

To be continued....

To find our more about TITAN's literature review results, sign-up to be sent a copy via the subscribe form at the bottom of our website

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