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Platforms will have to help rebuild trust in news

“There may be only one thing about which Donald Trump’s administration and the Democrats who just took control of the House can agree: Tech platforms have enormous power that has to be tamed.”

When publishers realized that the scale of social networks could be used to distribute news, we threw our journalism into them. We didn’t think about much more than the extra eyeballs we’d win. The platforms gave us all a real boost. Then came aggregators. Then clickbait. Then fake news. All at enormous scale. Now, the fightback.

In 2019, the media will work more actively on reversing the long-term trend of decline in trust in the media. And lawmakers will demand that social platforms use their enormous power to help.

Platforms already have teams of people working on this. Knowing that the first step to greater trust is transparency, Facebook’s news integrity program has so far shipped a way for publishers to provide extra information about their operations, such as their ethics policy and governance structure. This information is tentatively available to users. In 2019, Facebook will feel the pressure to reveal the results of these tests, and to scale up whatever benefits they bring. This could include detecting the quality of that information and weighting the associated content accordingly in feeds. Google and YouTube have begun similar work.

Many of these ideas come from the Trust Project, a consortium of publishers including The Economist, the BBC, The Washington Post, and El Mundo. The project is founded on research that shows how a user’s trust relies on publisher transparency. The publishers who have committed to users’ expected level of transparency reach 217 million users a month. But that’s not enough. The consortium will continue to grow in 2019 and begin work on continually verifying that members stick to their promises.

The work of publishers and the platforms will have to converge in 2019. Working separately will not be enough to tackle the scale of the problem of distrust in our media. And in any case, lawmakers are watching. There may be only one thing about which Donald Trump’s administration and the Democrats who just took control of the House can agree: Tech platforms have enormous power that has to be tamed. In the case of news, this power is used to subvert democracy. Facebook has even admitted that it was used to incite genocide in Myanmar, including through the spread of fake news. The Democrats will use their own renewed influence in Congress to investigate this power and will almost certainly propose legislation to force the platforms to act.

Trust has been in decline for a long time. Two things raise the chance of a reversal to start in 2019: the collective effort of publishers, and the pressure that they and lawmakers will put on platforms.

Adam Smith is audience engagement editor at The Economist.

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