Brands have become the new hope for consumers battered by populism, rapid change and societal discontent. Brands are an alternative democracy because consumers feel they can vote with their wallet or cellphone and can control their relationship with a brand more easily than dealing with a polarized, paralyzed government. There is a new expectation that brands will take on issues that matter, from racial discrimination to sustainability, and consumers believe brands can do more to solve them than government can.* Social media is now one of the most pressing issues of our time.
For the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, we have conducted a special nine-country Edelman Trust Barometer study on social media, the latest chapter in our 18-year inquiry into trust in institutions. We learned that there is a serious lack of confidence in social media in all regions of the world. This is a cry from the heart; people are scared. They are outraged about the violation of their privacy, and uncertain about the truth because of the plague of fake news.
In the past few months, people’s concerns about social media have metastasized with the revelations of privacy violations by Cambridge Analytica; evidence of Russia-produced fake news undermining the electoral process in the U.S., UK, Italy and Germany; and new scrutiny of data-sharing partnerships between platforms and top device makers, made without users’ consent. ABC Entertainment felt it had to fire Roseanne Barr and cancel her sitcom because of her racist tweet. The 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer in January showed trust in social media at 41 percent globally, with drops across most Western countries from the previous year, plummeting 11 points in the U.S. The U.K. is at just 24 percent trust.
Our new study tells us why. The specific concerns are fake news and privacy. Only 40 percent trust that social media platforms will address fake news and hate speech (28 percent in the UK, 34 percent in the U.S.). Sixty percent told us that they do not trust social media platforms to behave responsibly with user data. Forty percent said they have deleted at least one social media account in the past year because they did not trust the platform to treat personal information properly. And nearly two-thirds (62 percent) said that they want government to play a stronger role in regulating social media.
Consumers want brands to act on the problem because they understand that the power of the advertiser exceeds that of the individual. Seventy percent of respondents told us that they expect brands to pressure platforms to address fake news and protect users from offensive content. A similar percentage told us they count on brands to get social media to defend their personal data. And the platforms are responding; Facebook has recently launched a new transparency initiative for political advertisements that unveils the buyer of the space and the amount spent on the campaign.
Consumers don’t want to give up on social media — it has become a crucial partner in their lives. But they want a New Deal with the platforms. Be transparent with me about what you are doing, including clear identification of sponsorship. Give me control over my purchase data and my demographics, with explicit privacy options at each step. Offer me information that I can believe and protect me from noxious content. Give me a public place to talk back to you, and I will then hold you accountable for substantive change.
People expect brands today to have values, not just a value proposition. That’s why consumers are counting on brands to preserve social media and to protect them from exploitation. Brands and social media platforms must treat consumers as an equal partner in solving the problem. Give power back to consumers, and they’ll give you their trust and their business. Help fix social media so that consumers can again trust what they love.
Richard Edelman is president and CEO.