As we begin 2018, we find the world in a new phase in the loss of trust: the unwillingness to believe information, even from those closest to us. The loss of confidence in information channels and sources is the fourth wave of the trust tsunami. The moorings of institutions have already been dangerously undermined by the three previous waves: fear of job loss due to globalization and automation; the Great Recession, which created a crisis of confidence in traditional authority figures and institutions while undermining the middle class; and the effects of massive global migration. Now, in this fourth wave, we have a world without common facts and objective truth, weakening trust even as the global economy recovers.
Gresham’s Law, based on the 18th century observation that debased currency drives out the good, is now evident in the realm of information, with fake news crowding out real news. Leaders are going directly to the people, bashing the media as inaccurate and biased. These forces are taking a toll. According to the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer, media has become the least-trusted global institution for the first time, with trust scores of over 50 percent in only six nations, five of which are in the developing world. Putting pressure on trust in media are declining trust in search engines and social media. People have retreated into self curated information bubbles, where they read only that with which they agree, as if selecting their playlist for music. Fully half of respondents indicate that they consume mainstream media less than once a week. Nearly six in 10 agree that news organizations are politicized, and nearly one in two agree that they are elitist. Nearly two-thirds agree that the average person cannot distinguish good journalism from falsehoods.
This year also brings a change in the ecosystem of trust, which had become increasingly premised on peer-to-peer discussion. The credibility of “a person like yourself” declined substantially, and peers are no longer the most-believed source of information. There is renewed confidence in experts, notably technical experts and academics (63 percent and 61 percent, respectively), as well as a fast recovering belief in CEOs (up from 37 percent to 44 percent), rewarded for speaking out on issues.
At the same time, in the two most powerful nations in the world, China and the U.S., trust is moving dramatically in opposite directions, with China showing the most extreme positive changes in trust and the U.S. the most extreme negative changes this year.
The U.S. is enduring the worst collapse ever recorded in the history of the Edelman Trust Barometer. This is led by a decline in trust in government, which is down 30 points among the informed public and 14 points among the general population, while for the informed public trust in each of the other institutions sank by 20 or more points. General population trust declined nine points on the Trust Index scale to 43, placing the nation in the lower middle segment. But informed public trust imploded, down 23 Trust Index points to 45, ranking the U.S. lowest of the 28 nations surveyed, and all but eliminating the trust gap between the informed public and the mass population. This decline is transversal, across age, region and gender.
China’s trust is soaring; it is now the No. 1 nation on the Trust Index among both the informed public and the general population. The government and media have always been highly trusted, but there is an inexorable rise in business and NGOs. The middle class is growing quickly, and Chinese brands such as Tencent and Alibaba are moving aggressively into global markets. China’s trust scores are nearly matched by India, the UAE, Indonesia and Singapore, while the Western democracies languish mostly in distruster territory, challenging the traditional geopolitical vision of satisfaction with systems.
The “mass-class” divide persists, with only seven nations in the distruster category for the informed public, while among the general population 20 of the 28 nations surveyed now fall into the category of distrust. Declines of trust are no longer linked as closely to economic woes but instead to specific violations, such as quality control falsification at Japan Inc.’s Kobe Steel or the bribery scandals at Brazil’s JBS.
The employer is the safe house in global governance, with 72 percent of respondents saying that they trust their employer to do what is right. By nearly a two-to-one margin, a company is trusted to take specific actions that both increase profits and improve economic and social conditions.
There are new expectations of corporate leaders. Nearly 7 in 10 respondents say that building trust is the No. 1 job for CEOs, ahead of high-quality products and services. Nearly two-thirds say they want CEOs to take the lead on policy change instead of waiting for government, which now ranks significantly below business in trust in most markets. This is the time for business to address the wage stagnation of the working class over the past two decades while acknowledging the need to retrain employees who are about to be replaced by automation.
There is a desperate search for the terra firm a of stability and truth. The fourth wave of the trust tsunami, the rise of disinformation, is perhaps the most insidious because it undermines the very essence of rational discourse and decision making. Silence is now deeply dangerous — a tax on truth.
The consequences of a loss of belief in reliable information are volatility, societal polarization and an ebbing of faith in society’s governing structures, slowing economic growth and tempting leaders to make short-sighted policy choices. We must heed the warning of the Chinese philosopher Confucius centuries ago: “A state cannot survive without the confidence of its people.”
This is the existential challenge of our times. Fortunately, we are already seeing the first signs of regret about over-dependence on peers and blind reliance on populist leaders. People’s concern about fake news and their willingness to listen to experts show that they yearn for knowledge. The media cannot solve this alone because of economic constraints and the politics of the moment. Every institution must play its part by educating its constituents and joining the public debate, going direct to the end-users of information. That means taking the informed risk to join the battle for truth so that facts triumph over fears.
Richard Edelman is president and CEO.