Who do you trust? Perhaps unsurprisingly given the political turmoil in 2016, the answer is ‘no-one at all.’ That’s the headline finding of the latest Edelman Trust Barometer, which found that trust in politicians, media, business and ‘the system’ has dropped precipitately over the last year. Less than a quarter (24%) of those surveyed in the UK trust the media, and just 26% trust the government. Figures continue to drop – comparing data from the end of 2016 and beginning of 2017 shows that trust levels fell a further 11%.
What is most worrying is that while trust in politicians is at rock bottom, the majority of people believe outspoken, spontaneous ‘straight-talkers’ over diplomatic communicators. This echoes Oxford-educated Michael Gove’s boast during the EU referendum that the British public “have had enough of experts”. 53% of people believe the system has failed them and that the odds are stacked against them. They blame immigration, technological change and changing values and simply don’t trust existing politicians and organisations to sort them out.
As someone who studied history it is easy to draw parallels with the 1930s. The immediate impact of the Wall Street Crash was bad enough, but the failure of things to return to normal over time led to disillusionment and the rise of radicalism and racism. Existing liberal institutions thought they could control these forces, hence trying to do deals with the likes of the Nazis. Instead, it had the opposite effect, making them appear stronger than they actually were and encouraging a rise in support.
What is especially concerning is that things could be about to get much worse in 2017. We already have the prospect of Donald Trump in the White House, and the triggering of Article 50 to launch a hard Brexit. But elections are also due in France, Germany and the Netherlands (and potentially Italy), where extremist and anti-establishment parties are expected to do well with disenchanted electorates.
The impact of two of the main factors driving the breakdown in trust (immigration and technological change) are going to accelerate, further weakening support for the status quo. It is a vicious circle – isolationism and suspicion reinforce themselves, allied to the fact that many of us now get our news through social media networks that reflect our own background and views, rather than leaving us open to ideas that are different.
What can be done to change this? And, can it be changed at all? The first step is to wake up to the seriousness of the issue. Just as politicians and the public seemed to sleepwalk into the rise of the far right in the 1930s, there is a danger that the same thing will happen again. Politicians need to take a stand and outline exactly what the benefits of the current system are, taking steps to be positive about what it delivers to people. This is what the Remain campaign singularly failed to do during the EU Referendum vote.
Secondly, equip people to deal with change. Automation and artificial intelligence are hollowing out the workforce, but they are also creating new jobs. It is up to government, working with business and trade unions, to put in place the training to help reskill people on an ongoing basis. The old system of early education needs to be complemented by lifelong learning with access for all.
Thirdly, the media must take a stand against extremism and those that are wantonly making up ‘facts’. They need to call out deliberate lies from politicians, even if that makes their job harder. And companies like Facebook need to be considered part of the media, and redouble their efforts to stamp out fake news on their networks, given that this is where a large (and increasing) percentage of the population get their information.
The breakdown in trust that the world is currently suffering from cannot be easily remedied. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth trying. Public relations professionals should be playing their part, but it will take a sustained effort from all the groups named in the Edelman report (business, politicians, government, the media and NGOs) to change perceptions and rebuild trust.