Under Elon Musk, Twitter has announced it is “de-regulating” posts, stepping back from its policy of tagging and deleting COVID-19 misinformation on the platform. For many good reasons, experts say this move will have serious public health consequences, coming as it does amid a still-deadly pandemic. It seems very reasonable for public health authorities to hold this position. But, will this resolve the bigger challenge – communications chaos?
As social media has grown in importance and become a go-to source for information, there have been persistent calls from lawmakers and regulators for owners and managers to be responsible for tagging the misinformation that has often been spread on their platforms and moderating it. Does this ask exceed our abilities to monitor and engage and corral dangerous deniers?
Long before one of the world’s wealthiest people slapped down $44B to buy Twitter, the public was in the grip of a misinformation pandemic. Whether on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit or any of several platforms, communication and public discourse have been partisan, ideologically informed and slanted. During the pandemic, when this “Tower of Babel” was combined with inaccurate, non-authoritative and often conflicting pronouncements from those in authority, the public’s trust in elected officials, health authorities, drug companies and public institutions was broadly undermined. By the time Elon Musk got to Twitter, in terms of trust, the horse had long fled the stable.
During the COVID-era, social media discourse has already enabled our nation to self-divide into tribes. Whatever Musk’s intentions are, we are already in the midst of a perfect storm of “trust deregulation.”
TRUST TAKES YEARS TO EARN – IT’S LOST IN A MOMENT
Trust in institutions, it turns out, is short-lived and can be fragile.
Despite the great success of COVID vaccines, which are medical miracles, public health officials’ overstatement of their benefits contributed to reduced trust. Designed to protect and guard against viral transmission, vaccines were not all they were promised to be. Their protection turns out to be individual, not societal, and they guard against disease severity, like the flu shot, but not transmission.
As variants come onto the stage, we are encouraged to get another booster shot. But the variant that now reigns supreme has no vaccine. It’s the “I don’t give a damn” adaptation. When the scientific story changed, it became hard to maintain confidence in the system.
Public health officials aren’t alone; there is a documented, dramatic trust decline in government and science, in addition to public health. Institutional trust diminishes as anxiety resulting from emotional (and social) isolation rises. Many blame social media for ratcheting that anxiety, as it’s often difficult to differentiate fact from fiction. But while Twitter is accountable for much chaos, it’s not responsible for the drop in consumer confidence in institutions.
Trust is personal, earned through consistent action over time. How institutions and companies — embodied by their CEOs, marketers, and communicators — engage transparently and honestly defines the quality of relationships and earns them trust.
While trust must be carefully earned, it can more easily be squandered. Public health institutions proved this.
The CDC needed to improve when it came to consumer mobilization. Masks work. Social distancing was effective. Vaccines and booster shots reduce disease severity. But are people continuing to wear masks, take precautions or get boosted? The Centers for Disease Control failed to establish itself as the go-to source for information and direction, and no longer enjoys the level of public trust it once did.
THE ERA OF VERIFY, THEN TRUST
And that takes us back to Twitter. While many point the finger at Twitter and other social platforms like Facebook as primary culprits in the mess we face, the causes of the current distrust go deeper. Poor communication and indecisive action from those in authority, a willingness to exploit crises for political and personal gain, coupled with news networks and media platforms that long ago moved from reporting facts to reflecting the tribal beliefs of their audiences’ ideological alignment contribute mightily to the loss of objective truth and the normalization of passing misinformation.
If quashing misinformation is to have any positive impact, consumers need to have a well-regarded, apolitical home base they can trust, which does not currently exist. How can Twitter alone be held accountable without this beacon of accuracy being seen as a go-to source?
Whether we advertise or not on this platform, there are right now 450 million monthly active users on Twitter! Most do not register what Elon Musk says or represents. If the billionaire throws his hands up and shuts off the lights, who wins the final round of this debate?
Many pundits sound Twitter’s death knell. Some are couching it as retribution for being a home for misinformation – or worse, hate. But, if Twitter – with its global town square positive aspects still intact — collapses, does anyone win?
Without a trusted, objective source, it becomes critically important for consumers of information to adopt a more skeptical mindset to review information carefully to determine its value and truth. And that means verifying the accuracy of information before sharing our trust.
MOVING FORWARD TO BUILD TRUST
Platforms like Twitter have a responsibility to their users, including protecting them from fiction that could lead to dangerous decisions regarding their health. Whether Elon Musk can be appealed to or not to reverse this decision to step back on quashing misinformation, regulators, corporate leaders and communicators must be reminded that creating and maintaining trust with the public is a micro-building community activity that happens house-by-house, person-to-person, and eye-to-eye.
We must recognize that Twitter is a microcosm reflecting people’s diversity, beliefs, and opinions. If Twitter fails, the plurality of opinion it has revealed over time doesn’t go away. To build trust with that broad, diverse crowd of users, communicators need to make their cases with facts, convincingly, with authority and evidence, over and over. It isn’t going to be simple to navigate these chaotic waters, but when it comes to combatting misinformation, we are all in the same boat.