Time to rethink truth and trust

Posted on 1st October 2019

Sonia Livingstone

Written by Sonia Livingstone OBE, Professor of Social Psychology in the Department of Media and Communications at LSE, and the Chair of the LSE-led Truth, Trust and Technology Commission

Trust in tech – or the lack of it – is at the heart of much public anxiety about the digital age. That’s one reason why the LSE has embarked on a major ‘truth trust and tech’ commission. Sonia Livingstone, chairing the commission, says social media especially has forced a rethink of what we understand as truth.

The LSE truth, trust and technology commission (T3) deals with the crisis in public information – aka “fake news”, Cambridge Analytica (pictured below), election hacking, the crisis in journalism, filter bubbles, biased algorithms, ill-informed citizens and more.

As the DCMS select committee investigation into ‘fake news’ following the EU referendum campaign said, misinformation is a threat to the future of democracy. So ours is a timely and urgent remit – to identify the structural causes of media misinformation in the UK and to come up with a framework for tackling them through strategic policy recommendations.

The T3 commission is led by professor Charlie Beckett and overseen by commissioners who include leading figures from the media and information sectors, politics, academia and civil society. I am the commission chair.

The commission has four strands: journalism credibility, platform responsibility, political communications, and media literacy and citizenship. After holding a series of lively deliberative, multi-stakeholder workshops, we are finalising recommendations for whether and how platforms can be better regulated, how we can make sure people understand better how platforms work, and how politicians and civil society can help shape their impact on our lives – especially when it comes to politics. We’ll report in November.

The evidence demands changes – for some parts of the problem, through government regulation or co-regulation; for other parts through self-regulatory codes of conduct; to reach all segments of the public, through a comprehensive strategy for critical media literacy; for coherence and accountability across these different and moving parts of the problem, by establishing a new regulator, as many are now debating – perhaps to be delivered in the government’s upcoming white paper.

For matters connected to freedom of speech – for journalism, for the public – extreme caution is needed lest we find ourselves advocating for censorship. When it comes to enforcing existing regulation (regarding racist speech, campaign finance law, media plurality) or extending it in needed ways (to regulate digital advertising, discriminatory algorithms, and improve electoral law), greater resources and determination is needed. To ensure sufficient resources for quality journalism, some kind of levy on platforms or public service media funding may be required.

One of the biggest challenges will be addressing the problems of truth and trust as perceived by the general public. Although sources of news and comment have proliferated, only about half of voters say they know at least ‘a fair amount’ about politics, according to the Hansard Society, and around a quarter of UK respondents to a recent Reuters Institute survey say they sometimes or often avoid the news.

Problems for news consumers are also problems for citizens. And problems for citizens make for problems for democracy writ large.

This is not just a problem at election time. Votes may be swayed at the last minute by campaigns or tactics of mis/disinformation, but for the most part, political views are formed slowly over months and years, informed by news, information, events and circumstance – and, once formed, they can be hard to alter. So the quality and source of the news and information that reaches the public is crucial.

While news obtained via social media is under the spotlight, the quality and financing of all journalism is threatened by platform dominance. In other words, now that ever more political discussion takes place online, what my colleague Nick Couldry calls the “communicative entitlement” to participate in the life of the community is being shaped by the policies and designs of platforms, and these in turn are shaped by commercial interests rather than the public interest, prioritising profit over democratic and civic considerations.

Too often, when such matters are being debated, hands are waved vaguely in the direction of “media literacy” as if education can single-handedly solve the problem. It cannot.

Call it what you will – media literacy, digital literacy, critical literacy, news literacy – educational alternatives to the regulation of the digital environment are often suggested yet they rarely result in concrete policies or additional resources which actually increase the media literacy of the public.

Crucially, we cannot teach what is unlearnable and people cannot learn to be literate in what is illegible. Terms and conditions written in legalese are a case in point. Relatedly, we cannot teach people data literacy without transparency, or what to trust without authoritative markers of authenticity and expertise. So people’s media literacy depends on how their digital environment has been designed and regulated.

Only once the above has been properly recognised can we turn to the question of what education can, realistically achieve. To reach young people, schools are clearly the answer, though the past decade has seen a retrenchment rather than a ramping up of educational resources in this regard. But how can the adult population be reached?

For me, this is the most important and pressing problem – to find an inclusive and effective way to support adults to understand their changing digital environment critically, so that trust is better informed, truth can be discerned, and civic participation is positively encouraged.

Ideally, all those concerned with quality information in service of the public – public service media, libraries, the education sector, etc. – would be charged with delivering this. But government must nominate or create a responsible independent organisation to ensure the results are effective.

Sonia Livingstone OBE is professor of social psychology in the Department of Media and Communications at LSE, and the chair of the LSE-led truth, trust and technology commission. She has contributed to the Power & Responsibility Green Paper, released this September.

These issues will be discussed at DigitalAgenda’s Power & Responsibility Summit at the British Library on 9 October.

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