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In ? we trust

26 January 2022 7:15 PM
Digital technology

For a growing group of people that answer is no-one

The Edelman Trust Barometer is an annual survey in 28 countries of about 35 000 people to determine what the current levels of trust is in four key institutions - government, media, business and NGOs.

What is trust?

A simplified version is that it is the belief you hold about someone that they will or won’t do something, a second element relates to the justification in doing or not doing something.

Psychologically, it would be a measure of your competence and warmth. When we come across people who do what they say and are engaging and persuasive about why, we will trust them.

Generally, we tend to trust someone until they show they are untrustworthy in part because we actually met them, but modern life has you know and even interact with many people you never meet and so either resist trusting someone because you did not get to meet them or trust someone that had you met them you might not trust, or worse through manipulation you trust them falsely.

Edelman Trust Barometer

22 years of trust - page 3 Edelman Trust Barometer

For the last two decades the PR company Edelman has surveyed global citizens about their levels of trust in key pillars of society and plots the responses on a matrix that measures effectiveness and ethical behaviour.

World events and changes in the results seem to offer an insight into how and why our trust changes and what the impact of those changes could be if not addressed.

The survey started following the anti-globalisation protests in 2000. Regular citizens of developed economies believed that globalisation would give them access to the best products at the best price, what they did not know was that for many it would also mean losing your job to those whose labour cost less elsewhere.

The survey looks to see what the state of trust is in the four selected industries and what the gap in trust is between those that are wealthy and potentially more informed and those that lack resources and often access to good information.

It also tracks the differences in trust levels by grouping countries into those that are developed democracies, developing democracies and centrally controlled governments like China.

The main takeaway for 2022 is that the media and government are seen as being divisive.

The trust is measured as 0 to 49 as being distrustful, 50 to 59 as being neutral and 60 and above as trusting.

See the Trust Top 10

Media & Governments

The survey makes the distinction of media consisting of

  • Social media 37%

  • Owned media 43%

  • Traditional media 57%

  • Search engines 59%

The dominant news stories related to the pandemic and governments reaction to it.

This is the reason that governments performed poorly, certainly in democratic countries.

The division is rooted in how misinformation about the pandemic has been used and shared via some media types and similarly the influence those views had on politicians looking to get more support and attack opposition using the often opposing information about what should happen.

The element of effectiveness plays a major role here with the government seen to get it right early on for supporting those affected by the impact of the pandemic. As the pandemic wore on, some resorted to making claims about when the virus would be under control to offer some comfort only to see those promises turn out to be wrong and so other claims and requests met with distrust and lowering compliance.

Owned media which includes commercial media and the very many small private operations are led by revenue and so would need to produce content to attract a specific audience. The differences in those audiences would see which information is prioritised sometimes being opposites and so divisive when consumers of opposing media groups interacted. South Africa does not have as clear an example as the US with the likes of Fox news and CNN appearing to show the US as two different countries.

Social media is divisive at the best of times and the pandemic has supercharged that, rather than filter the sources of information to make their feeds more trustworthy, users appear to have lowered their expectations of any trustworthy on the platforms like Facebook and Twitter.

Traditional media and search engines both reduced in the last 12 months but remain in the neutral category, the issue with traditional media may be that public broadcasters and print, radio and TV outlets may be the nature of the interactions with those they reported about. Oxford University noted that many journalists covering the trauma of those affected by the pandemic may not have done so in a way that would leave their subjects feeling acknowledged as public contributors.

Business and NGOs increase

Thankfully, trust has shifted over the years between the institutions so we have had reason to trust in something although this is the first time that business has being the most trusted with NGOs second.

The reason appears to be the way business responded to employees and rather than mass layoffs, opted for new flexible working arrangements and compliance with calls for pandemic best practises. NGOs likewise with a focus on supporting people during the pandemic in a way that did not seek to benefit themselves or make determinations about when the pandemic would end did not disappoint anyone with predictions that turned out to be wrong.

Local versus global

A shift that has been growing over the years is increasing trust in local institutions even when the same institutions are not trusted nationally.

Similarly CEOs in general are not trusted at 49 points but when asked about the trust in the respondents CEO that was 66. Only co-workers and scientists were more trusted.

Given how much access we have to things happening in the world and how complex and daunting understanding what it all means and it is understandable that we are more likely to trust those we can actually deal with.

In South Africa, radio is regarded as a trusted media in part because it is focused on being intimate and local.

Even with some disappointment in local institutions and their leaders, you can at least understand the factors that may have caused them to act in the way they did.

The report sees this as a major opportunity for restoring trust by connecting the local issues to the national and international ones and the local leaders to the national ones.

If your company sees you as a stakeholder and is transparent about their values and objectives then you will feel more trusting and willing to assist in achieving the objectives. The challenge is then on those CEOs to take their message to a wider audience and work with the government to see agreed policies implemented and to call out the government when they act against their commitments. The influence of business is likely to be felt sooner and more effectively than the multiple year voting cycles.

Likewise NGOs are considered to be best placed to ethically and competently get the work in which they focus completed. For South Africans the view that Gift of the Givers can achieve more with less than most government agencies across a broad range of services. Entrusting NGOs to work as oversight and when needed to carry out the work of the government may be more effective.

I am always surprised that the work the NSRI does is not a government competency, then I am grateful that it is undoubtedly a more efficient service by being run by passionate volunteers. In time it must become a government service which by definition is any service that is a utility to all the citizens. There is a separate argument for making some commercial operations state run for the same reason, but a hybrid looks to be a workable compromise.

Fear of the future

Perhaps the element which will determine how trusting you are of these institutions is what you think the future holds. If you are fearful that it will be bad then there is not much that would have you trust someone that says it will be okay. If you do lack much hope for the future you will also not be willing for moderate suggestions to address the perceived issues. Bold and rapid plans to radically change things would sound more appealing even if the objective evidence would show that the plans are not feasible. This is part of the shift to populism and nationalism as it gives you someone to blame and someone to follow.

The 2022 survey found job loss was most feared, this would be both as a consequence of the pandemic in developing economies and from automation in developed economies. Other factors are climate change, cybercrime, loss of civil liberties and prejudice and racism.

The final element which has to be addressed is the growing gap in trust between those that are doing well economically and have had access to quality education.

Like fear, if you are financially vulnerable and not able to process the global changes that affect us, you will withdraw from the conversation and look for simple if wrong solutions to fix things.

The real danger is that the inequality will lead those with the ability to address the issues to ignore them as they do not appear concerning to them. In the same way issues for those that are marginalised will seem like a crisis and would support drastic actions.

A final point is that in controlled economies like China, trust in government and media was high even though some questions that may have challenged that were not asked.

It illustrates that democracies are not perfect and are often messy, but they remain the best chance to deal with the challenges face provided we are willing to be open and

26 January 2022 7:15 PM
Digital technology

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