After a year of unprecedented disaster and turbulence – the Covid-19 pandemic and associated economic crisis, the global outcry over systemic racism and political instability – the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer reveals an epidemic of misinformation and widespread mistrust in societal institutions and leaders around the world. Adding to this is a failing trust ecosystem unable to confront the rampant infodemic, leaving the four institutions – business, government, NGOs and media – in an environment of information bankruptcy where trust needs rebuilding and new path forward needs charting.
Global Pandemic Puts Trust to the Test
The Covid-19 pandemic has had a detrimental impact on public health and the economy and has accelerated the erosion of trust around the world. This is evident in the significant drop in trust across the four largest economies: Germany, the U.S., the UK, and China. Trust in companies headquartered in the UK fell by five points to 56%, its lowest position in 8 years of tracking.
This moment of reckoning for countries around the world is demonstrated most pointedly by government’s institutional trust over the course of the last year. The UK government briefly seized the high ground, emerging as the most trusted institution in May 2020, when people entrusted it with leading the fight against Covid-19 and restoring economic health. But the government failed the test and squandered that trust bubble, having lost most ground in the last six months, down 15 points in the UK to 45%.
Crisis of Leadership
With a growing Trust gap and trust declines worldwide, people are looking for leadership and solutions as they reject talking-heads who they deem not credible. In fact, none of the societal leaders we track—government leaders, CEOs, journalists and even religious leaders—are trusted to do what is right.
UK respondents are more likely to trust what is local, such as people from their local community and scientists, despite both groups losing 11 and 7 points, respectively, since last year.
Alarmingly, some 53% of those in the UK believe that government leaders are purposely trying to mislead them, whilst 52% subscribe to the idea that business leaders are purposely trying to mislead by saying things they know are false or gross exaggerations.
Raging Infodemic Feeds Mistrust
Without a trusted leadership source to look to, people don’t know where or from whom to get reliable information. The global infodemic has driven trust in all news sources to record lows with social media (19 percent) and owned media (23 percent) the least trusted; traditional media (44 percent) saw the largest drop in trust at 13 points for the UK.
7 in 10 respondents felt that the media was failing in its duty to be objective and non-partisan in its reporting, whilst 56% believe that most news organisations are more concerned with supporting an ideology or political position than with informing the public.
High Stakes for Business
While the world seems to be clouded by mistrust and misinformation, there is a glimmer of hope in business. This year’s study shows that business is not only the most trusted institution among the four studied, currently sat at 50 percentage points, up +3 from 2020, and is the only institution seen as both ethical and competent.
When the government is absent, people clearly expect business to step in and fill the void, and the high expectations of business to address and solve today’s challenges has never been more apparent. The heightened expectations of business bring CEOs new demands to focus on societal engagement with the same rigor, thoughtfulness, and energy used to deliver on profits. In fact, more than half of respondents (59 percent) believe that when the government does not fix societal problems, CEOs should step in. 63% also felt that CEOs should hold themselves accountable to public, and not just to the board of directors and shareholders.
Emerging from Information Bankruptcy: The Way Forward
Trust remains the most important currency in lasting relationships between the four institutions studied and their various stakeholders. Particularly in times of turbulence and volatility, trust is what holds society together and where growth rebuilds and rebounds. Every institution must play its part in restoring society and emerging from information bankruptcy:
- Business must embrace its expanded mandate and expectations, with CEOs leading on a range of familiar and unfamiliar issues. It's important to take meaningful action first and then communicate about it.
- Societal leaders must lead with facts and act with empathy. They must have the courage to provide straight talk, but also empathise with and address people's fears.
- Provide trustworthy content that is truthful, unbiased and reliable.
- Institutions must partner with one another to solve issues. Business, government, media, and NGOs must find a common purpose and take collective action to solve societal problems.