Seeking trust in fragmented spaces

“Chat apps are hybrid media, with complex and shifting features. As a result, they pose challenges for reporters trying to develop trust with users.”

This past year has brought challenges for news organizations and journalists seeking trust with users online. The fragmentation of online discourse has allowed “for many more ‘truths’ to exist” in different online spaces. To explore these competing claims, journalists and news organization will need to develop trust with users in fragmented spaces.

Since their emergence in 2011, mobile chat applications (e.g., WhatsApp, WeChat, and Line) have gained massive user bases and given enterprising reporters challenges. Occupying a role between public and private communication, chat apps allows for small (e.g., Facebook Messenger or Telegram) or large-scale (e.g., WhatsApp and WeChat) interactions. Some of these apps are encrypted (e.g., Telegram or Signal), thus giving users greater confidence in the accuracy of these conversations, potentially safe from corporate or government surveillance.

Chat apps are hybrid media, with complex and shifting features. As a result, they pose challenges for reporters trying to develop trust with users. Amid the ephemeral content (e.g., such as with Snapchat) and rapid interaction on these apps, journalists will continue to seek to sustain interactions over time to establish confidence with sources.

For journalists, questions include: What are the important spaces? How can I get access? How can I maintain the confidence of key people in those spaces? For potential sources and users, questions include: Which news organizations are trustworthy? How do they understand the technology? What should be said online versus in person? While news organizations and journalists have made use of these apps, this coming year is going to continue to pose challenges for users and media workers searching to trust in those fragmented spaces.

Valérie Bélair-Gagnon is an assistant professor of journalism studies at the University of Minnesota.

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