US institutions suffer 'decimation in trust': Edelman Trust Barometer 2018

Disinformation and tribal dialogue have dragged down the public's trust in NGOs, businesses, media, and government in the past year.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

NEW YORK: Trust in U.S. institutions has plummeted to new lows as a result of fake news and a lack of rational discourse, according to Edelman’s 2018 Trust Barometer.

The general population of the U.S. experienced the largest drop on record in terms of trust in institutions, plummeting nine points. Of the 28 countries surveyed, the U.S. informed public is the least trusting in this category at 45 points, dropping 23 from the year before. The drop was so pronounced, Edelman is calling 2018 "The Battle for Truth."

The online survey was conducted between October 13 and November 16, 2017; it reached more than 33,000 respondents.

Optimism generally rises in countries during election years, including 2016. However, 2017 was decidedly different, according to Ben Boyd, president of practices, sectors, and intellectual property at Edelman. President Donald Trump was not the sole driver for the drop in trust in the U.S., he noted. Deadly mass shootings, slow responses to natural disasters, political gridlock, and proliferation of disinformation all played a part.

"This was almost a year of unfathomable firsts in the U.S.," Boyd said. "For the American respondent, it was the year of losing its place on the world stage and feeling it’d lost its way."

Trust in government plunged among both the general population (14 points to 33%) and the informed public (30 points to 33%). The three remaining institutions, business, NGOs, and media, all saw declines of between 10 and 20 points.

For the first time, the Trust Barometer explained how respondents define "media," which to many includes search engines, social media, and influencers. Globally, media dropped to the least trusted institution.

However, people are increasingly turning to "credentialed sources" for information instead of a "person like yourself." For seven consecutive years, the percentage of respondents that said they trusted everyday peers increased consistently. This year’s six-point decline reversed that trend.

Fears about fake news continued to rise, with about 70% of respondents saying they worry it is being used as a weapon and 63% saying they can’t tell the difference between good journalism and rumor and falsehoods.However, trust in journalists saw a gain of 12 points. In most countries, platforms ranked below mainstream media. Journalism was trusted by 59%, compared to platforms’ 51%, the largest disparity in seven years.

Meanwhile, China’s institutions are the most trusted among the general population (74%) and the informed public (83%), showing the two most powerful nations in the world moving in opposite directions on the topic.

"In markets where we saw losses, we saw tremendous losses, the U.S. being the poster child for a decimation in trust among the informed public," Boyd said.

The public is "yearning" for someone it can believe in, said Stephen Kehoe, global chair of reputation at Edelman.

"There is a call to action for business to step up and lead," he added, highlighting rising sentiment that CEOs should step forward on issues and build trust in their companies. Trust in employers increased by 15 points in the U.S. to 79% and seven points globally to 72%.

Kehoe said communicators should chart their respective chief executive’s public positions on future issues and messages. The study indicated the public expects companies to distribute information with the editorial rigor of good journalism.

"Essentially, [companies] become their own publishers of information," Kehoe said. "Packaging and putting information out using credentialed voices of authority, where we’ve seen an overall rise, those seem to be the way in which comms can [see] glimmers of hope in pushing the agenda forward."

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