It’s no secret that Latin America is “loco” for social media, however, online news sites are also hugely popular and are always bubbling with activity from the millions of people they draw in every day. Today four out of five internet users in the region are plugged into social networks; Facebook boasts almost 40 million users in Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil alone. Interestingly, journalistic integrity and trust in the media have changed as social media use has increased.

It has been over a year now that I have been running Meltwater’s Latin American operations from our office in Buenos Aires, and I was recently struck with two fascinating studies, which may help to explain why Latin Americans are so socially engaged.

Here is the first study: according to the Edelman Trust Barometer, trust in the media and in government has undergone a dramatic drop from 2011 to 2012 in both Argentina and Brazil. The study reports trust in government dropping from 54% to 35% in Argentina and from 85% to 32% in Brazil, and trust in media dropping from 60% to 45% in Argentina and from 73% to 61% in Brazil.

The message is pretty straightforward: people are starting to doubt seriously what they are being told by both politicians and journalists. This is hardly a surprise to anyone living in Buenos Aires – it is a general rumor among Argentineans that the country’s most high-profile journalists are either in bed with the government or backing the opposition.

Here is the second study: Kantar Media reports that in no region of the world are people more likely to submit and read comments below online articles than in Argentina and Brazil. One out of four Argentineans regularly submit comments on articles, and almost half read the comments posted by fellow citizens.

This is more of a surprise. What does it say about journalistic integrity and trust in the media? Could it be that users are more engaged in Argentina and Brazil because they think that they are more likely to get the real story from the comments from the public than from official journalists?

Of course there are other theories to explain Latin America’s fascination with tweets and posts; mobile phones allow people to stay connected cheaply, and the culture down here tends to be very social. But it does ring true with what I have seen on the ground here at least, which is that citizen bloggers are sometimes considered more trustworthy than reporters seeped in the culture of major media outlets.

My suspicion would be that actually this is not just a Latin American phenomenon and that journalistic integrity, and therefore overall trust in the media, in today’s online world is waning. Meltwater Buzz has already recorded a marked decrease in trust levels in the UK, and as Europe and the US struggle to lift themselves out of economic recessions, participation in social media only increases.

So what does this mean for the future of the media industry?

Social media has its value, but public reliance on the comments of random, untrained citizens for their news is hardly ideal.  A free and functioning press and high journalistic integrity are important for any society, and it is especially crucial in the developing world, where low education levels and political corruption leave ordinary people vulnerable to manipulation.

In the era of citizen journalism, online news—meaning both the published articles and user-generated comments—has an appearance of truthfulness, depth, and persuasiveness that can leave the old newspaper model looking archaic and obsolete.

In order to serve the purpose of the third estate both here in Argentina and in other countries that are going through tough times, it is important for newspapers to continue innovating to make sure that they retain and build loyalty with the commenting public, and at the same time recognize this trend for what it is: a huge red flag.

How will the media industry protect their institution? How will they retain positive public perception of their journalistic integrity and regain the trust of their readers? Let us know your thoughts below!