2021 Edelman Trust Barometer Shows ‘Infodemic’ Threatening Recovery

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In this special episode of the Earned Media Podcast, I talk to Edelman Executive Director of Intellectual Property Tonia Ries about the 2021 Trust Barometer

We are living through a raging infodemic and a pandemic at the same time. The survey suggests that the Trump Administration and the GOP’s war against science has culminated in a crisis of confidence that threatens to prolong the coronavirus public health emergency. 

“In tweets to their followers, the political leaders of the U.S., Brazil and Mexico diminished the importance of masks and social distancing to accelerate reopening their economies; these nations now are among those leading the world in COVID deaths,” wrote Richard Edelman, who has served as President & Chief Executive Officer of the public relations firm since 1996, in his essay about the findings.

Fifty-seven percent of Biden voters say they trust the media, versus just 18% of Trump voters. The polarization is so extreme that 57% of Americans say they believe the U.S. is in the “midst of a cold civil war.” There’s so much politically motivated false information out there, people don’t know where to turn. “As a result of this daily diet of distortions and counter-factual narrative, we no longer believe our leaders,” writes Richard. 

Top Survey Findings:

  • Trust in traditional and social media as sources of general news and information are at all-time lows.
  • Things have gotten to the point that over half of the people surveyed are worried that journalists, government leaders and business leaders are all purposely trying to mislead people by saying things they know are false or gross exaggerations. 
  • People don’t know who to trust. All sources are viewed with suspicion. So bad information is not only contaminating the information ecosystem, it is also starting to make people doubt good information.
  • People who are not careful consumers of information are less likely to be willing to get vaccinated and to aid the government in contact tracing.
  • Employers have a key role to play in addressing the infodemic due to the high levels of trust they have with employees who distrust the news media.  

winning support for climate action policy

After surveying respondents in more than 28 countries, the report finds trust in journalists, government, and business leaders at an all time low. More than half said they think that journalists and leaders are purposely misleading people on a regular basis. This crisis of credibility has brought us to the point where most people don't know where to turn for accurate information anymore. 

Poor media hygiene — which the report defines as relying on social media for news, not verifying headlines by clicking through and reading the actual story before amplifying it by liking or commenting and engaging in online echo chambers — is threatening to prolong our recovery by discouraging a large enough percentage of the population from getting vaccinated, which will keep us from achieving herd immunity. As a result of the infodemic, inoculation hesitancy is too high.Just one 1 in 4 of the survey respondents practice good media hygiene.

Respondents who said they verify the accuracy of news they share on social media before amplifying it were also 11 points more likely to be vaccinated against coronavirus than people who don’t. Social media algorithms are juiced to drive engagement and truth is not a ranking factor, so sensational headlines travel farther, faster on social networks, which is part of the problem.

“…only one in three of our 33,000 respondents is ready to take the vaccine as soon as possible and under 65 percent plan to be vaccinated within a year, writes Richard. “Of those who practice poor ‘information hygiene’…there is substantially less willingness to get the vaccine within a year (59 percent versus 70 percent for people with good information hygiene). There is greater vaccine hesitancy among Blacks and Hispanics in the US despite 3 to 1 death rates from COVID because of medical inequities and misinformation borne of history,” writes Richard. 

According to the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer, the most trusted source of information is an employee's CEO, then national government, followed by news media reports with attributed sources, then major brands, then news media reports with anonymous sources, with advertising and social media at the bottom of the barrel.

More Key Takeaways:

  • When the news media is either absent or failing to supply people with accurate and timely information, corporations are seen as having a responsibility to fill the information void.
  • With these greater expectations to engage on societal issues, CEOs are accountable to the public and not just to the board and shareholders. 
  • Half of all employees are more likely now than a year ago to voice objections to management or engage in workplace protests.

Businesses are in a position to leverage trust by serving as guardians of information quality because they are one of the few institutions that scored as trustworthy, competent, and ethical. 

“The challenges of the next decade, including ending systemic racism, renewed globalization, and oversight of technology platforms, require a more balanced trust equation for business and government. Media must restore its position as even-handed arbiter of truth, focused on news not opinion,” writes Richard. But how we get there in an environment where elected GOP officials still deny the legitimacy of President Biden’s win over Trump, despite 65 lost court cases and zero evidence, and lack the political will to hold Trump accountable for his failed coup d'état. 

My Conclusion

First, let me just say that I am guilty of having celebrated social media as a democratizer of information. If you go back through this blog, I welcomed it as an agent of liberation. But that's not how things went down. Social networking companies made a pact with the intelligence community that led to the age of surveillance capitalism we're in now. In exchange for sharing their data, the social networks got a license to strip mine our identities, preferences, fears, and dreams.

“The economics of surveillance capitalism…turned Facebook into an advertising juggernaut and a killing field for truth. Then an amoral Mr. Trump became president, demanding the right to lie at scale. Destructive economics merged with political appeasement, and everything became infinitely worse,' writes Shosana Zuboff, professor emeritus at the Harvard School of Business in an essay published by the New York Times.

The world's a big place so I don't want to say never, but there are few precedents of any girth for businesses putting purpose before profits. Facebook's donations to PBS are like Exxon's corporate social responsibility programs. Both effectively hack off your arm and hand you band-aid. So I'm skeptical that businesses are up to the task of defanging surveillance capitalism.

Unless the public, government, and NGOs can rally to revoke the surveillance economy's license to build personal dossiers on each and everyone one of us, the future of democracy is in peril.

For the full interview, listen to the podcast. You can download the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer here.

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