Mainstream Media Recirculation of Trust-Reducing Social Media Messages

Date01 March 2022
Published date01 March 2022
Subject MatterArticles
American Politics Research
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1532673X211023931
In order for democratic institutions to function, people need
to trust in them (Gamson, 1968; Hetherington, 2005;
Hetherington & Husser, 2012; Levi, 1998; Kampen et al.,
2006; Misztal, 2001; Sabel, 1993). The news media is one
democratic institution that enables citizens to learn about
their officials’ behavior in office and later hold them account-
able for that behavior in the ballot box (Liebes & Ribak,
1991; Tsfati & Cohen, 2005). As such, trust in the news
media as a free, independent, and reliable source of political
information is critical for protecting democracy (Blöbaum,
2014; Müller, 2013; Paisana et al., 2020). However,
Americans are increasingly turning away from legacy news
media outlets toward social media as a primary source for
political news (Mitchell et al., 2020; Oeldorf-Hirsch et al.,
2020; Oliphant, 2020), a development that threatens to erode
trust in legacy news media, increase partisan polarization,
and decrease engagement in the democratic process.
As users turn to social media for their news, they encoun-
ter more ideologically polarized and less factual messages,
partially as a result of their own seeking behaviors and par-
tially due to the non-content-neutral sorting and searching
algorithms that select the content users see (Cardenal,
Aguilar-Paredes, et al., 2019). When viewers encounter ideo-
logically-confirmatory information, they are less likely to
validate it (Edgerly et al., 2020; Edgerly & Vraga, 2020), and
when they encounter ideologically-disconfirmatory informa-
tion, they are more likely to respond by doubling down on
ideologically polarized beliefs and doubting the credibility
of the message’s source (Anderson & Auxier, 2020; Feldman
et al., 2020; Levendusky, 2013; Slothuus & de Vreese, 2010;
Taber & Lodge, 2006). Furthermore, social media platforms
can be infiltrated by many groups with antidemocratic goals,
including authoritarians who harass and censor information
(Tucker et al., 2017), foreign states who use troll farms and
fake accounts to foment discontent (Jayamaha & Matisek,
2019), and domestic users who spread antimedia rhetoric
that calls into question the validity of traditional news report-
ing (Strömbäck et al., 2020). Social media corporations con-
tribute by exacerbating these hostile behaviors with
demonstrably inconsistent applications of community stan-
dards (Smith, 2020) and counterproductive content warning
labels (Oeldorf-Hirsch et al., 2020; Vogels et al., 2020). All
of these forces jointly contribute to decreased trust in legacy
news reporting among social media users.
1023931APRXXX10.1177/1532673X211023931American Politics ResearchChristensen et al.
1University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, USA
2Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, NC, USA
3Ohio Northern University, Ada, USA
Corresponding Author:
Devin J. Christensen, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 361
Pauli Murray Hall, CB 3265, Chapel Hill, NC 27515, USA.
Mainstream Media Recirculation of
Trust-Reducing Social Media Messages
Devin J. Christensen1, John Lovett2,
and John A. Curiel3
Citizens need to trust in the integrity of news reporting for the free press to fulfill its role as a democratic institution that
enables citizens to hold representatives accountable. Growing research has shown that increased use of social media erodes
trust in legacy news. However, trust-reducing social media messages are not contained to social media platforms; they are
widely recirculated by the mainstream media. We argue that mainstream media corporations select social media messages
to recirculate precisely because of their trust-reducing features in order to respond to short-term competitive market
incentives. We turn to Donald Trump’s Twitter posts as examples of trust-reducing messages and show that the media cites
more trust-reducing messages more quickly and more frequently than less trust-reducing messages. These findings implicate
mainstream media corporations alongside social media platforms in the systematic and ongoing degradation of trust in legacy
news reporting.
social media, democracy, trust, authoritarianism, outrage, political communication
2022, Vol. 50(2) 213 –226

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