But ubiquity has not yielded credibility for social media, the survey found. Social media and blogs ranked at the bottom when the poll asked respondents how much they trusted information they received from different individuals, groups, and media platforms.
On this broad measure, just 30 percent of those polled placed a “great deal” or “some” trust in information when they “hear it, see it, or read about it” on social-media websites and services such as Facebook, Twitter, and others. Nearly twice as many (58 percent) say they put not very much or no trust in that information. Blogs didn’t score much better: Just 34 percent expressed much trust in them, compared with 53 percent who said they had little trust. In each case, the finding was comparable to the modest 37 percent who placed a great deal of trust in advertisements. For both sources, regular social-media users expressed only slightly more trust than the public overall.
More-traditional information sources performed better. Public television and radio (including NPR and PBS) ranked highest, with 75 percent expressing a great deal of faith in them. Following were newspapers (71 percent); cable news programs (70 percent); network news (64 percent); magazines (57 percent); talk-radio programs (53 percent); and company websites (51 percent).
The survey found that online sources scored better in a question tied to purchasing decisions. The poll asked respondents how much consideration they gave to an array of information sources when buying a product or service. Continuing another consistent Heartland Monitor finding, by far the most trusted sources were those closest to home: Nearly nine in 10 said they relied a great deal or some on conversations with friends, family, and acquaintances. Nearly three in four leaned heavily on “expert reviews in publications like Consumer Reports and major newspapers,” and 57 percent cited advertising.
But online forums (59 percent) and online reviews from other consumers on sites such as Yelp and TripAdvisor (54 percent) also scored well. Among regular social-media users, reliance on those sources soared to 72 percent and 66 percent, respectively, approaching the level of users who consult expert publications (77 percent). About seven in 10 young adults also report relying heavily on those sources. What’s more, it’s becoming much more common for Americans to not only seek information about their experiences but also share it: More than half of regular social-media users say they have posted a review or comment online after a positive experience with a product or service, and nearly half say they have done so after a negative experience.
Sarah P., a thirtysomething graduate student in Rexburg, Idaho, who did not give her last name, was one of many respondents who said they now routinely seek the online reactions of other consumers before opening their wallets. When buying something, she said, she usually pokes through consumer reviews on Amazon, Target, or other sites. “You can shop smarter,” Sarah said. “I think social media has certainly made it better for me to shop and look up problems that certain products have.”
“It’s impossible to call companies; they want to put you on a live Web chat all the time.” —Beth Thibault, Westport, Conn.
Tom A., a sales manager in Champaign, Ill., who also declined to give his last name, was one of several who said that the communications revolution has shifted power from businesses to consumers by making it easier to compare options and alternatives. “Let’s go back to our grandparents,” he said. “They did business with the same people the whole time and didn’t really have a platform to compare other industries or services with. People fire their banks and attorneys all the time now, because people use the Internet and social media to learn more about their alternative choices.”
In weighing those choices, Tom said he now leans more heavily on the collected opinions of other consumers than on the reviews in expert publications: “I’m an avid biker, and I just bought a headlight for my bike. I didn’t care what expert reviews and the manufacturer say because it seemed almost like propaganda. I care what people do in their real life. I can see a guy who is exactly like me and what he thinks.”
Such assessments help explain why a resounding 60 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that “the rapid growth of the Internet, most recently through social media,” has made it easier “to be a well-informed consumer.” Only 32 percent said that the information explosion “has made it harder for me to be a well-informed consumer” because of unreliable reports or by overwhelming people with “too much information to manage.” The share who believe that the Internet has empowered them rises to 68 percent among college graduates, 69 percent among social-media users, and 73 percent among those who use the Internet several times daily. But it’s not just the young digerati who feel that way. Robert Merkle, a retired 73-year-old former owner of a gourmet-food shop living in Bayville, N.J., succinctly expressed the consensus in the poll across a broad range of groups. “I don’t buy anything or go anywhere without checking online,” he declared.