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Engagement Best Practices

2018 Edelman Trust Barometer: “The Battle for Truth”


Every year, the Edelman Trust Barometer measures the trust in institutions (government, business, media and NGOs) across 28 countries. In 2017, the Edelman Trust Barometer found a “global implosion of trust” amongst the general population – the majority of respondents do not believe that the overall system is working for them.

In 2018, while trust amongst both the informed public and general population has not improved on average, there is a distinct split between countries with extreme trust gains and declines. Most strikingly, aggregate trust has declined in the United States by 37 points: a 23 point drop amongst the informed public, and 9 points in the general population. On the other end of the spectrum, aggregate trust in China has risen by 27 points.

Truth is the new battleground: the proliferation of “fake news” has resulted in media becoming the least trusted institution in the Barometer’s history. More importantly, citizens are distinguishing between platforms – such as social media and search engines – and journalism. While platforms are increasingly distrusted, journalism – publications and news organizations – have increased in trust. In particular, trust in journalists has increased by 12 points, pointing to their crucial role in guarding information quality and curating the vast amount of information available to the public.

For governments and decision-makers, building trust is an uphill process. Several key takeaways from the 2018 Trust Barometer should shape the way institutions interact and engage with the public.

Renewed Credibility and Trust in Experts

In 2005, trust shifted from authorities to peers. As social media started to popularize amongst the general public, people started to receive more news and information from their peers. However, this year’s Trust Barometer found that the credibility of “a person like yourself” dropped 6 points to an all-time low in the study’s history, and “voices of expertise are now regaining credibility”. People are increasingly finding it difficult to distinguish between facts and rumor or “fake news”. Professional expertise and technical knowledge from trusted experts can help to clarify misleading information and provide a sense of security and confidence.

That being said, the public still has an important role to play in providing contextual knowledge in the decision-making process. In our Q&A with licenced IAP2 trainer Gay Robinson, she noted, “We’re all experts in our own area — in our own lives, in our homes, and to some extent in our own communities. We have to be very careful that we’re not taking ‘expert’ to always mean technical experts, because they don’t necessarily have the same lived experiences that others do.” Including the public and drawing upon their local expertise is crucial to crafting effective, enforceable, and appropriate public policies and regulations.

Social Platforms are Mistrusted

We’ve become all too familiar with the friend or family member who shares unverified or downright false information on social media. The proliferation of bots and other fake/duplicate accounts makes it easy to generate noise and spread misinformation or “fake news”. In the 2016 election, nearly 20% of political tweets were sent out by bots. Advertising and algorithms have also reinforced the echo chamber, serving up content based on the user’s past interactions and pre-existing views. Most notably, companies such as Cambridge Analytica has created psychological profiles to micro-target voters on social media. Overall, the public is increasingly recognizing the challenges associated with relying on social media as a source of news and information. It is becoming harder for people to trust the content that they see on social media – in particular, only 51% of respondents in this year’s Trust Barometer said that they trusted platforms.

While governments had once jumped on Facebook, Twitter and other platforms to reach and hear from citizens, it has become increasingly difficult to trust the information – and its source – on social media. Institutions need to look to innovative new ways of engaging with the public which place the citizen at the heart of the engagement process, and are not contingent on paid advertising and political campaigning. Digital identity authentication is the first step in overcoming the catch-22 of mistrust, where decision-makers can start to be confident in the feedback that they’re receiving from real, relevant people – not bots.

Open and Accessible Data is Crucial

The decline in public trust didn’t happen overnight, and it will take a genuine effort to engage with the public in good faith to reverse this trend. The lack of transparency and accountability has resulted in widespread mistrust – and rightfully so. Disillusioned and disconnected from decision-makers, it became increasingly attractive for people to turn to alternative (and often unverified) sources. “Institutions must answer the public’s call for providing factually accurate, timely information and joining the public debate,” said Richard Edelman, president and CEO of Edelman.

Governments can start by opening up data sets – everything from financial information to school dropout rates to traffic accidents – to provide the public with insights into public services. While raw open data can still be clunky, the information provided can be reused, visualized, or incorporated into existing apps or programs to make it accessible for non-technical users. Empowering citizens to become informed and engage directly with real, transparent data is the first step in rebuilding trust in institutions.

Read the 2018 Trust Barometer Global Report here. 

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