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Texas A&M panel examines social media, trust and how both shape public perceptions

The Bryan-College Station Eagle covered the lively discussion during the 2019 Fallon Marshall Lecture Series on February 26.

Note: Watch both parts of the Fallon-Marshall Lecture on our Facebook page: Part 1 and Part 2.

by Rebecca Fiedler, The Bryan-College Station Eagle

A lecture focusing on the impact of social media on people’s sense of trust in entities such as elected officials drew a crowd Tuesday evening to Rudder Forum in the Rudder Theater Complex at Texas A&M. The discussion was part the 2019 Fallon-Marshall Lecture Series with the university’s College of Liberal Arts.

Between 150 and 200 students and other interested guests gathered for the speech, where they engaged with a faculty panel that included moderator Robert Putnam — a Hagler Institute for Advanced Study Fellow — and three A&M liberal arts professors.

Jose Cheibub, professor of political science, opened discussion by explaining how relationships between elected officials and voters are complex. He noted that voters want politicians they can trust, but too often politicians are credited or blamed for some major societal change beyond their control between each election period.

“When it comes to translating this knowledge to the level of society, it is very hard to say something that will be widely accepted,” he said. “It is easier to talk about the things that may underline what one believes to be the existing level of trust in any society than to say anything about how you can build and enforce trust in that society.”

Social media, Cheibub said, is seen as an underlying mechanism for diffusing trust, often acting as an “echo chamber” of each user’s voice.

Catherine Eckel, professor of economics, spoke of the concept of trust as a “transaction that greases the wheels of commerce.” She noted that although trust is essentially what makes the world go round, people are likely to base their sense of trust on factors such as physical appearance.

“Social media causes more of the formation of strong in-groups, and will probably increase in-group trust, decreasing out-group trust,” she said. “You’re probably going to be more likely to see Democrats who don’t trust Republicans, and Republicans less likely to trust Democrats. But within groups, it could very well be the case, and I think it will likely be the case, that trust actually goes up.”

Eckel then asked an open-ended rhetorical question: Is increased trust inside these groups enough to offset the negative effects of lowered trust between all groups?

Sandra Braman, professor of communication, briefly reviewed Western society’s changing sense of self since the drafting of the Magna Carta, noting that the word “trust” was much more widely used after the charter came about.

“I think it’s not coincidental that in today’s time period, when actually we are under so many challenges and threats to [law] in the United States and other countries around the world, trust as a concept is very much on out minds,” she said.

Braman listed different entities in which a person might place their trust, such as individual people, governments, relationships, political communities, brands, journalism and procedures. She then moved on to talk about how legal systems are in place for certain forms of mass media, such as television and radio, but for social media the question remains as to who has editorial control.

“The question is, who are we going to trust, and why are we trusting them?” she posed. “In a way, I think we have the same problem in the 21st century that individuals had in the 19th century with industrialization and urbanization.”

In the 19th century, she explained, people had individual identities, and most in the United States were isolated and rural. Making up one’s identity was not a problem. With the coming of the 20th century, however, society became much more communal. Today, though, community has become dislodged again, and individuals don’t know who they are.

“I don’t think it’s that there’s no trust anymore,” Braman said. “There’s a lot of trust, but in things that we don’t understand.”

Later in the panel discussion, Eckel argued that “echo chambers” of people with similar beliefs on social media sites can actually be a good thing, because within a group of like-minded people, more work is accomplished. Cheibub said one point in the discussion regarding the need still for mass communication of unbiased facts.

“I may very well spend 10 minutes of my life in one of those echo chambers just because I need that soothing rubbing of my ego, but then I spend half an hour reading newspapers,” he said.

Originally posted here.