The Assault on Truth

Megatrend Three:
The Assault on Truth

Try to imagine that three-quarters of the people in your society were worried that the water running through the pipes in their homes might be toxic; that it might even have been deliberately poisoned. Or that six out of 10 said they weren’t sure how to tell if the public water supplies were safe to drink.

Those are the numbers for a basic commodity almost as essential for a functioning community as clean drinking water: reliable information.

Even before the rise of populist politicians in states where democratic debate had been for decades dull but civilized, the mass population were telling our researchers that they couldn’t trust what they were hearing from politicians and from the journalists who they had previously relied on to report accurately what political parties, corporations, and others in charge of vital parts of their lives were promising.

The era of “fake news” had begun.

If you had always lived in a hot, arid part of the planet where there was little to drink you would have become accustomed to short rations of water and to detecting the signs of what was safe to drink. But if you were used to merely turning on a faucet, your assumptions had suddenly had to change. Welcome to the Information Desert – and it has blown into your neighborhood.

Donald Trump is the man most associated with the phrase “fake news,” which for almost five years he has been using as a way of convincing followers that they should not believe criticism of him and his administration. But the phrase has now entered the vocabulary of politicians and spokespeople around the world. In a leader article last year, the state-owned China Daily newspaper said that if Mr Trump was saying that news organizations such as The New York Times– supposedly a benchmark of honesty – spread “fake news about America,” then nobody should believe what any Western journalist said about, say, China’s record on human rights. Authoritarian regimes from Russia to Venezuela to Myanmar to Italy to Gabon have embraced Mr Trump’s disparagement of any press reports with which he disagrees as “fake news.” The message is: “You can’t trust anyone… except me.”

Is it any surprise that in last year’s Trust Barometer, 73 percent of people globally said they were worried that fake news was being used as a weapon to undermine their society? And of course, deliberately “fake” news does exist. The internet has proved a perfect conduit for what the Soviets called maskirovka – deception – although that was a weapon of war rather than of peacetime. Some people spread it deliberately just to get clicks on counterfeit websites: a story that the Pope had endorsed Mr Trump in the 2016 election made tens of thousands of dollars in ad revenue for the site in the small Eastern European nation of Macedonia that concocted it.

Media traditionally “mediated” between those making important decisions or pronouncements at the top of society and those who would be affected by them. You read or heard or saw that mediation through a news brand such as the BBC or NBC or The Wall Street Journal or Bild or Xinhua, which you knew and whose reputation you knew. They might have an agenda, they might be careless with the facts, but if you knew what you were drinking, you knew what risks you were taking. That no longer applies when most people find news through search engines or on the newsfeeds of their social media sites.

Uncertainty Over Real vs. Fake News 2018

General population, 28-market average

Percent who agree that…

It makes the work of bad actors so much easier. Sowing doubt in the minds of people is simple if they pay much less attention to the origin of the news. Research by Edelman and the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford or by the Pew Research Center all shows that most people feel they are losing the ability to tell what is true and what is not.

Of course, there are still brands such as the BBC and the Times and the Journal with very high reputations, but they are not universally available and usually not for free. Some people are starved of quality information. A two-tier world beckons in which those who cannot afford trustworthy news will be living in an information desert.

A second major effect of digital platform dominance is that it gives ruthless people direct and private lines of communication to voters and consumers. In Sri Lanka, social media groups spread “news reports” about supposed Muslim atrocities, which led to lynchings and the burning of entire communities. Authorities are powerless to intervene. Some even fan the flames, further eroding trust between different sections of society. Worse, some in power encourage the disintermediation of journalists precisely because it benefits their own brand of disruptive populism.

So how has the Edelman Trust Barometer depicted this desertification of media megatrend over the past two decades?

Alarmingly, among the informed public, trust in the media is currently at an all-time high. Since Edelman began measuring trust in the sector in 2007, the level has fluctuated between 45 percent and its current 58 percent. Although this still leaves media well below business and NGOs as a trusted institution, nothing could better illustrate the inequality of trust between different sectors of society, because among the rest of the global population, media has barely moved in its trust levels and sits at 48 percent, almost tied with government on 47 percent at the bottom of the trust ranking. Being “informed”, it could be argued that the informed public know how to read the signs, how to test the safety of the water.

The situation would be even worse if the measurements were taken only in countries with the strongest and longest traditions of democracy: they are less trusting of the media by 11 points at 46 percent compared with countries that are least democratic. Countries with younger populations – and it might be argued a more naïve outlook – also have considerably more faith in their media at 61 percent as against 44 percent in nations with the oldest demographic profiles.

Trust In Media Sources in Developed Markets

Percent trust, general online population in developed markets, 11-market average, and change from 2012-2020

  • Traditional media
  • Search engines
  • Online media
  • Owned media
  • Social media

Trust In Media Sources in Developing Markets

Percent trust, general online population in developing markets, 11-market average, and change from 2012-2020

  • Traditional media
  • Search engines
  • Online media
  • Owned media
  • Social media

Within the media sector, a recent trend that saw search engines becoming a more trustworthy source of information than the traditional media (newspapers and broadcasting) seems to have ended in 2018. Across a broad profile of countries that Edelman has surveyed for more than a decade, search and traditional media are equally trusted at 61 percent. By contrast, social media has never scored more than 44 percent and is now only on 39 percent – the least trusted of all media sources. In wealthier, developed nations, traditional media scores almost 30 points higher than social.

What all this tells us is that in different types of society, different parts of the population trust different types of media. For instance, after the financial crisis, trust in the media crashed in the West – news organizations had not done their job in holding the rich and powerful to account. But in other parts of the world it actually rose. There is no clear picture and there are clearly places – information deserts – where very little by way of trustworthy media exists.

And there is now every sign that the information deserts may be spreading, because despite being more trusted overall, many traditional media companies are really struggling to survive financially. In developed nations in particular, newspapers and TV news organizations have seen revenues and profits lost to digital platforms such as Facebook and Google. Those who rely on digital advertising are finding life a lot harder than those with paid subscription models. By contrast, social media platforms and search dominate the digital advertising market. In recent years, Google and Facebook between them have taken up to 90 percent of all new money in digital advertising in numerous countries around the world. In Asia, locally owned social platforms such as WeChat, Snow, Line, and Sina Weibo challenge the Facebook-owned platforms for market share, making it even harder for longstanding media brands to win growth in the digital age. Across the world, media brands relying on reach – the number of eyeballs and ears encountering their content – rather than quality have found themselves engaged in a race to the bottom of the quality ladder in order to gain clicks and attention-time. Competing in a very commoditized field, where sensation is the only valuable currency, is not the way for media brands to build trust. Nor does it help to raise the overall standard of reliability or quality of information. This process adds to the “desertification” of information in our world.

Porto Velho, Brazil, 2019

A section of the Amazon rainforest destroyed by fire contrasts with a lush green canopy of healthy vegetation. INPE, Brazil’s National Institute of Space Research, says the number of fires detected by satellite in the Amazon region is the highest since 2010.

The only traditional brands enjoying any real success online are those with subscription models, such as the Financial Times, The New York Times or on a smaller scale titles such as Folha de S. Paulo in Brazil or Aftonbladet in Sweden. Japanese megabrands such as The Yomiuri Shimbun still sell millions of papers a day, but even it is on a downslope.The most trusted news brands in the world tend to be those that do not necessarily need to be profitable because they are supported with some form of public funding. The BBC is the prime example of this, but such a description would also apply to RT (formerly Russia Today), or CGTN of China, though neither enjoys the independence from government influence that the BBC has.

Over the years, Chinese people surveyed by Edelman have expressed high levels of trust in their media, although Russians rather less so. An interesting insight to attitudes in countries with no history of independent media came when Edelman asked in 2005 whether the informed public in different countries believed what they read in newspapers more than what they saw in advertisements. In the West, 96 percent of Germans and 93 percent of British and American respondents said news; fully 23 percent of Chinese people said they trusted advertising more than journalism in their country.

As media expert Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson of the Financial Times says, there used to be a hierarchy of news reliability, with sources such as the BBC or Reuters clearly identifiable as trustworthy at the top, right the way down through media that were apologists for political regimes down to red-top tabloid newspapers peddling sensation at the bottom. But for the millions who get their news primarily in the form of snippets fed into their social media feeds – either by the echo-chamber of their friends or by algorithms that reinforce their own opinions – there is little chance to judge how trustworthy the original source of a story is. A story about Donald Trump could be written by The New York Times or by a disinformation factory in Eastern Europe and consumers may not take much notice of which it is. And journalists can make mistakes, however deserving of our trust they may be, yet the description of “fake news” can be applied to all equally in this anonymous information desert.

“Today,” Edgecliffe-Johnson says, “that hierarchy of news has been flattened in a great digital levelling. In turn, that has made it easier for any skeptic to point to an error anywhere on the media spectrum and say, ‘You SEE? I told you journalists couldn’t be trusted.’ Our industry may be good with words, but we’ve not found a way of breaking out of being lumped together as just ‘the media.’”

Media makes mistakes. And sometimes they ARE corrupt or deliberately dishonest. The editor of El Mundo, one of Spain’s most respected papers, recently wrote a book claiming that corporations bribed reporters with free TV sets or below-market-rate mortgages. In India “paid news” is an accepted part of media life. In the U.K., at least two newspaper groups developed an industry in stealing people’s most private data and using it to write titillating stories about them. In the U.S., tabloids bought up the stories of those whose relationships with the rich and powerful might damage the reputations of the rich and powerful, but not to report them. To bury them.

The media has never been a single, clear, pure running stream of truth. But today, despite the efforts of fact-checking organizations and some of the most honest people in the world, it looks more like a choked stream running through an arid landscape. There is an urgent need to maintain and strengthen media with public-service written into their remits and especially to develop technology solutions that allow both the digital platforms and the ordinary user to distinguish easily between professionally-produced journalism and clickbait or disinformation.

Moscow, Russia, 2017

Edward Snowden pictured at the Hotel National in Moscow, where he has lived since 2013. That was when the former CIA employee and U.S. government contractor copied and leaked classified information from the National Security Agency. His disclosures allege widespread illegal surveillance by U.S. organizations of its citizens and other nations, dramatically affecting trust in government.

photo: dimitri beliakov/polaris/eyevine

Without agreed facts, we cannot hope to revive the atmosphere of compromise and mutual understanding that allow trade and progress to flourish