Pandemic fuels culture of institutional mistrust

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Richard Edelman, President, Edelman


  • 2020 was the year of two equally destructive viruses: the pandemic and the infodemic.
  • Global report highlights that government and media, the usual sources of verifiable information in a crisis, have failed to meet the test.
  • Faced with a daily diet of misinformation, 61% of people surveyed have turned to business as the last bastion of ‘truth’.

One year ago, the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer found trust across institutions was damaged by pervasive fears of job loss to automation and downward mobility, despite a strong global economy and near full employment. Today, the COVID-19 pandemic—with more than 1.9 million lives lost and joblessness equivalent to the Great Depression—has accelerated the erosion of trust.

This global tragedy coincides with a long overdue recognition of systemic racism and continuing fight for racial justice. Add to this potent brew an epidemic of misinformation and the loss of belief that what our leaders tell us bears any resemblance to the truth.

The 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer finds a new era of information bankruptcy and a trust ecosystem unable to confront it. The pandemic and infodemic are two strands of a Rambo DNA, inextricably linked in their destructive force. Government and media, the usual sources of quality information in crisis, have both failed to meet the test.

The 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer Spring Updatetrust surge in institutions has given way to deep disappointment and a reshuffling of institutional trust. The disparate impact of the COVID-19 recession by economic strata has prompted a record mass-class divide of 16 points (elites at 68% trust, mass at 52%), with 25 of 28 markets showing double-digit trust gaps, triple the number of a decade ago.

Government seized the high ground of trust (+11 points to 65%) in May as if in wartime; its leaders promised to keep people safe and economically afloat in the pandemic’s early days. But six months of politics supplanting science has seen government (-8 points) cede its top position. Business has become the most trusted institution (61%) by developing vaccines in record time while finding new ways to work.

Three years ago, the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer recognized the ‘Battle for Truth,’ in which people selected media that reinforced their views. We now observe a further degradation of the communications infrastructure, resulting in a lack of quality information to enable the public to make fact-based decisions. In tweets and remarks to their followers, the political leaders of the US, Brazil and Mexico diminished the importance of masks and social distancing to accelerate reopening their economies; these nations are now are among those leading the world in COVID-19 deaths.

Treatments, such as hydroxychloroquine, touted by government officials as miraculous cures, were later discredited in scientific studies. The Chinese government censored Dr. Li Wenliang for his accurate early warnings about the strange, new virus that made him a hero to many Chinese before COVID-19 ultimately took his life in February.

As a result of this daily diet of distortions and counter-factual narrative, we no longer believe our leaders. Fifty-seven percent of respondents say government and business leaders purposefully try to mislead us—government through fallacious commentary and businesses imply consent through silence. CEO credibility has ebbed to 44%, down to 18% in Japan, 22% in France, while government officials are at 39% globally. coronavirus, health, COVID19, pandemic

What is the World Economic Forum doing to manage emerging risks from COVID-19?

The first global pandemic in more than 100 years, COVID-19 has spread throughout the world at an unprecedented speed. At the time of writing, 4.5 million cases have been confirmed and more than 300,000 people have died due to the virus.

As countries seek to recover, some of the more long-term economic, business, environmental, societal and technological challenges and opportunities are just beginning to become visible.

To help all stakeholders – communities, governments, businesses and individuals understand the emerging risks and follow-on effects generated by the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, the World Economic Forum, in collaboration with Marsh and McLennan and Zurich Insurance Group, has launched its COVID-19 Risks Outlook: A Preliminary Mapping and its Implications – a companion for decision-makers, building on the Forum’s annual Global Risks Report.

Companies are invited to join the Forum’s work to help manage the identified emerging risks of COVID-19 across industries to shape a better future. Read the full COVID-19 Risks Outlook: A Preliminary Mapping and its Implications report here, and our impact story with further information.

There is brutal judgment accorded by other nations to the world’s two largest economies; trust in the US is at 40% and China at 30%. China has endured the most precipitous decline (18 points) in trust from its citizens (from 90% trust to 72% in the past six months). The US, in the bottom quartile of countries as of November 2020, dropped a further five points post-election (43%)—a score which would place it ahead of only Japan and Russia. Trust in the US no doubt suffered a body blow after a violent mob invaded the Capitol in Washington DC on 6 January, in an unsuccessful effort to stop the certification of Joe Biden as the next president.

This is truly a run on the bank of trust. Trust in all news sources has hit record lows, with traditional media down to 53% from 65% two years ago, and social media down to 35% from 43%. Sixty-one percent of respondents believe media is politicized and not objective. There is a stunning 39-point gap in trust in media between Biden voters (57%) and Trump voters (18%), based on post-election data. The astonishing exception is communications from “my employer” is the most trusted source of information (61%), ahead of national government (58%), traditional media (57%) and social media (39%).

One consequence of misinformation is hesitancy about the COVID-19 vaccination, further threatening global health and economic revival. We find that, as of our study date, only one in three respondents are ready to take the vaccine as soon as possible, and under 65% plan to be vaccinated within a year.

Of those who practice poor “information hygiene”—including reliance on social media as a sole source, the sharing of unvetted stories and failure to seek broad news engagement—there is substantially less willingness to get the vaccine within a year (59% versus 70% for people with good information hygiene). There is greater vaccine hesitancy among black people in the US despite COVID-19 death rates nearly three times higher than whites because of historical and current medical inequities and mistreatment.

Business has emerged as the last institution standing, the only one rated as both competent and ethical and fifty points ahead of government on competence and approaching NGOs on ethics. Trust has gone local, with highest reliance on “my employer” at 76%, fifteen points higher than business in general, as employees have ever higher expectations of their companies to improve society. CEOs are expected to lead the charge on upskilling workers, sustainability and racial justice. The infodemic has expanded the mandate for business into unfamiliar areas; the top trust-building action for business is now guarding information quality.

Can truth rise from the ashes?

As we begin 2021, there are real reasons for hope: vaccines that promise the beginning of the end of the pandemic, a Brexit deal at long last and an economic recovery as travel and restaurant jobs are restored. Business will take the lead in the coming months; more than two thirds of respondents say that CEOs should step in when government does not fix societal problems.

But restoring stability cannot be a solo act; it is a trap for business to be both actor and regulator. 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 the even-handed arbiter of truth, focused on news not opinion.

“Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.”—George Orwell

After a year of unprecedented disaster, this could be the baseline of trust; we know what the bottom looks like and understand how to rebuild confidence of the public. The urgent issues confronting society require a knowledgeable public able to make choices based on unbiased information—not fear, compulsion or conspiracy theories.

Every institution must play its part in restoring facts to their rightful place at the centre of public discourse as the essential step to emerging from information bankruptcy. As the great journalist and novelist George Orwell wrote: “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.”

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