BY MATTHEW BISHOP, Journalist & Innovator

So much for 2022 being an uplifting year of putting the pandemic behind us. From geopolitics to cryptocurrency, the news headlines have provided precious few reasons to trust our leaders more, or at times our fellow citizens. This was a year that began with key measures of trust already at low levels in much of the world.

In May 2020, early in the pandemic, an 11 market survey found that three of four institutions were trusted, according to the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer Spring Update. In January, the 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer showed that business was the only trusted institution, across a 27-market average. No doubt there were positive developments below the surface. But for now, what Edelman calls the “cycle of distrust” seems to be continuing its worrying downward spiral.

Promising his fellow world leaders that he would not invade Ukraine right up until he did, Vladimir Putin was this year’s grimmest reaper of trust. Among the consequences of his utterly needless war so far: death and misery for many citizens of both countries, a further loss of public confidence in the multilateral governance system established after World War II (though perhaps not in NATO) and the return of two ghastly specters people hoped were forever stranded in the early 1980s, soaring inflation (though others also contributed here) and a heightened fear of nuclear war. But the signs of societal fragmentation and falling trust can be found everywhere, from the spread of election-result denialism in Brazil to Britain’s governing Conservatives ousting not one but two prime ministers because each had lost the trust of the public (and in the second instance, that of the financial markets, too), to the arrest of conspiracy theorists plotting a coup against the elected government in Germany.

No wonder the 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer found the default tendency of 59 percent of global respondents (the majority in 24 of 27 countries surveyed) is to distrust. Reversing this is a huge and urgent challenge, which is why this second annual edition of essays from the Edelman Trust Institute is dedicated to exploring how to maintain and rebuild trust in the key public and private sector institutions of our currently fracturing world.

Our authors, drawn from business, civil society, academia and the media, focused in particular on two big themes. One is the growing challenge of polarization. Even before Twitter was acquired by the world’s most discombobulating billionaire, social media, for example, had established itself firmly as a society-fracturing force that encourages an exaggerated sense of difference. Such polarization is often self-reinforcing. It rewards leaders for spreading misinformation and using other strategies to undermine trust in society’s broad-based institutions while talking up the trustworthiness of their own tribe’s sectional interests.

The second big question is the extent to which today’s low level of trust in government is justified because of genuine failures to perform. Lax economic policymaking shares, along with Putin, are a big part of the blame for the soaring cost of living in many countries. And as the worst days of COVID-19 recede into the distance, it is easier to see the obvious handling failures of national governments. Though some performed much better than others, none avoided significant mistakes — the “white paper” protests in China being but the latest expression of public distrust in how political leaders are responding to the pandemic.

Must do better

Recent events in China notwithstanding, the Edelman Trust Barometer has generally found higher levels of trust over time in government in Asian countries. In an essay asking what western governments can learn from this, Parag Khanna points to the emergence of a new set of Asian values, including “an almost scientific approach to governance, one that applies trial and error methods to deliver utilitarian outcomes.” Higher trust in Asia, he argues, is generally grounded in tangible results —from better infrastructure to improved education and social inclusion.

Even before Russia (which holds veto power at the United Nations) invaded Ukraine, the pandemic and its aftermath had demonstrated how little the world should trust a multilateral governance system that still reflects the global power balance after World War II. Three of our authors draw lessons from the seriously flawed global response to COVID-19. The cost, as Seth Berkley reports, was at least 1.3 million people who might not have died in the first year had our collective response been better. Dr. Berkley, a key leader in global public health, proposes several ideas to make the world better prepared for the next pandemic, including a system for pre-testing innovative vaccines that can be quickly tweaked to address whatever particular virus comes after us next and the establishment of a pre-funded mechanism for buying essential vaccines for developing countries.

For Vera Songwe, who was the head of the UN Economic Commission for Africa until recently, the rich world’s selfish behavior early in the pandemic undermined much of what remained of the developing world’s trust in a multi-lateral system supposedly built on a commitment to mutual co-responsibility. Not only did poorer countries not get the vaccines they were promised, they received little by way of financial support from the rich world for their economies, which were badly hit by lockdown policies. In her essay she calls for rich countries to restore that trust by reforming the global financial architecture and by investing in helping those countries transition to a post-carbon world.

Offering words of encouragement, Gargee Ghosh of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation notes in her essay that some of the greatest past examples of international cooperation began in times of geopolitical polarization. These include the eradication of smallpox and the saving of the ozone layer. She argues that the same could happen now, rebuilding trust through decisive collective action on challenges such as ending the world’s hunger crisis and, here again, reforming the global financial architecture.

Getting down to business

Corporate leaders are now more trusted than government leaders, according to the 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer, yet they also face high expectations from the public in terms of helping to solve society’s biggest problems. Roughly half of those surveyed say business is not doing enough to tackle issues such as climate change and economic inequality, for example.

That won’t be easy. While Russia’s invasion of Ukraine saw some firms act decisively to stop doing business there, others did not. In the U.S., the Supreme Court’s overturning of abortion rights put many CEOs in a tricky position given polarization on this issue among workers and customers. Florida’s decision to revoke some historic tax breaks for Disney after the company criticized the state’s new law restricting discussions of homosexuality in schools seems to have made some formerly outspoken bosses more circumspect. And taking seriously Environmental, Social and Governance performance has quickly turned from being a badge of good corporate behavior into standing in no man’s land on an increasingly polarized battleground. CEOs found themselves attacked on all sides, accused of superficial “ESG washing” by those who want firms to go further and deeper, and of being “woke capitalists” who put causes before profits by those who prefer their capitalism the Milton Friedman way.

In his essay, former Best Buy boss Hubert Joly rejects Friedman’s narrow, profit-centric view of corporate purpose. Business leaders should respond to the public’s higher trust and greater expectations by rising to the occasion, he argues: "Pursuing a higher purpose, I believe, can not only help address some of the world’s most serious challenges, it can also expand a company’s growth opportunities and lift an organization’s energy as teams embrace the chance to make a meaningful difference."

An inspiring example is Patagonia, an outdoor clothing and equipment maker famed for its commitment to the environment and paying its workers a fair wage. This summer, to ensure the firm’s mission continues after its founder has gone, ownership was transferred to an innovative structure called a “purpose trust.” In an interview with Rik Kirkland, Charles Conn, chair of Patagonia’s board, rejects the idea that it is “woke capitalism” to take a stand on social issues. Don’t “view this as purely a left or right issue,” he says. “When people line up to buy at a Chick-Fil-A to buy that sandwich, they’re also doing that partly because they want to support a company that reflects the values it does. I don’t agree with those values, but I’m for that transaction. I’m for a world where companies are explicit about what they stand for.”

Perhaps technology companies should take note. In his essay with Tanuj Bhojwani, Nandan Nilekani, a co-founder of Infosys and architect of India’s Aadhaar digital ID system, argues that in developing countries such as his, trust in new digital technology is high because the sector has prioritized delivering dramatic improvements to the lives of the public, especially those in greatest need. He argues that Silicon Valley and other western temples of tech can rebuild the trust they have lost over privacy and other side effects of the commercial platform economy by embracing more seriously the cause of building “digital public goods.”

Another trade besides tech which has experienced low trust is the media. In her essay, Vivian Schiller, a seasoned old and new media executive, argues that reviving local news, which has traditionally been highly correlated with civic and political vitality, should be a high priority, especially in the growing number of local “news deserts.” In the absence of any prospect of meaningful social media regulation in the foreseeable future, she supports more of the vigorous “naming and shaming” of harmful social media practices that has already driven progress on issues such as the online protection of minors. Schiller also sees trust-building potential in new media platforms that give people the space to talk to each other across political divides, using approaches such as “empathy at scale” and “deep listening.”

Bridge over troubled waters

Two especially interesting academic papers published this year by David Broockman of the University of California, Berkeley and colleagues support this notion that we can reduce polarization by exposing people more to the other side. The first found that video calls between people from opposing political parties could reduce what in the jargon is known as “affective polarization,” but only if they avoided talking about politics and instead bonded by sharing their feelings on safer trust-building topics such as what makes for my perfect day. The other found that paying Fox News viewers $15 an hour to watch CNN led them to moderate their opinions on current events, policy preferences and how they perceive key political figures and parties. This effect vanished once they returned to their old diet of uninterrupted Fox News.

Maybe Gen Z will save the day by building the bridges we need. After all, these are young adults who have lived their entire lives in polycrisis, and they are desperate for something better. As Manu Meel, 23, explains, “I was born two years before 9/11, went to middle school during the Great Recession, graduated high school during the 2016 election and left college during the COVID pandemic. To top it off, 2021 began with one of the darkest days in the history of our democracy, the January 6th Capitol Riots. To put it charitably: My generation’s lived experience does not reflect a thriving democracy we can trust.”

In 2017 while still a student at UC Berkeley, Meel founded a chapter of BridgeUSA, an organization that hosts meetings on university campuses that provide a carefully curated safe space in which students can bridge differences and navigate disagreements. The organization is now growing fast on college campuses across America and is branching out into high schools. At its core, he says, “Democracy depends on our willingness to trust each other enough to constructively disagree and find consensus despite our differences. We will not have a democracy if we cannot talk to each other — it is that simple.”

We hope you find inspiration in these wise words, and others in this collection of essays, and that they lead you to action. Of course, there is no guarantee that any of these ideas can break the cycle of distrust. But for anyone who wants to see a less polarized world and less fractured societies with high levels of trust in high performing institutions the time is long past to try something new. Trust me.

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