After a year of unprecedented disaster and turbulence—the Covid-19 pandemic and economic crisis, the global outcry over systemic racism and political instability—the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer reveals an epidemic of misinformation and widespread mistrust of 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 and a mandate to rebuild trust and chart a new path forward.
Global Pandemic Puts Trust to the Test
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 around the world. This is evident in the significant drop in trust in the two largest economies: the U.S. and China. The U.S. (40 percent) and Chinese (30 percent) governments are deeply distrusted by respondents from the 26 other markets surveyed. And most notable is the drop in trust among their own citizens, with the U.S., already in the bottom quartile for trust, experiencing an additional 5-point drop since its presidential election in November 2020 and China seeing an 18-point drop since May 2020.
This moment of reckoning for countries around the world demonstrated most pointedly in government’s institutional trust over the course of the last year. 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 government failed the test and squandered that trust bubble, having lost the most ground in the last six months (down 8 points globally).
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, with drops in trust scores for all.
In particular, CEO’s credibility is at all-time lows in several countries, including Japan (18 percent) and France (22 percent), making the challenge for CEO leaders even more acute as they try to address today’s problems.
Raging Infodemic Feeds Mistrust
Without a trusted leadership source to look to, people don’t know where or who to get reliable information. The global infodemic has driven trust in all news sources to record lows with social media (35 percent) and owned media (41 percent) the least trusted; traditional media (53 percent) saw the largest drop in trust at eight points globally.
This rising tide of misinformation and mistrust is threatening Covid-19 recovery, as people are deeply suspicious and hesitant about the Covid-19 vaccine. In fact, among those who practice poor information hygiene—in that they do not check their sources and/or ensure credible and factual information is shared—there is substantially less willingness to get the vaccine within the year of its first availability (59 percent versus 70 percent for people with good information hygiene).
These pandemic fears are impeding a return to the workplace, with 58 percent of employees choosing to work from home doing so out of fear of becoming infected.
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, but it is also the only trusted institution with a 61 percent trust level globally, and 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.
Not only have the expectations of business to lead been heightened, but we are also seeing new areas of focus that business must address; for example, the top trust-building action for business is now guarding information quality, ensuring that reliable trustworthy information goes out to their employees, and, by extension, the community. In fact, more than half of respondents (53 percent) believe that when the news media is absent, corporations have a responsibility to fill the information void.
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 empathize 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.