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How Fake News Is Eroding Global Trust in Key Institutions

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Fake News

The era of “fake news” is having a global impact on the overall level of trust people have in the main institutions that keep the world stabilized. When we examine the top four; government, business, the media, and non-government organizations (non-profits) we can see that there is a shift taking place right before our eyes. Media trust has declined more than any of the other three, mostly because of the fake news epidemic.

Some examples would be how social media feeds are filled with sensationalistic stories with click-bait headlines. Newly formed websites are posing as legitimate news sites, but in reality are filled with opinion-based stories, often with a slanderous approach, and often using sketchy or fabricated “facts.” The national news powerhouses, once trusted sources of facts, have lowered their standards for journalism so low, that stories have to be later retracted or updated. Reporters no longer report just the facts, but instead add layer upon layer of opinion, raunchy attempts at humor, personal attacks, and outright fabrications. Fact-checking, a tenant to good journalism, has been sidelined for the quick-hit headline-grabbing stories, which drive advertising revenues. The American public has never been this skeptical about what they see or read.

Trust Is Declining

According to the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer, the United States has the largest trust gap of any nation in the world. Using the four institutions previously mentioned as barometers, people across 28 countries were surveyed to get their opinions on many different angles connected to trust. These metrics were used to compile Trust Scores. The researchers categorized people into two sub-groups; the Informed Public and the Mass Population. (1) The former is approximately 13% of the global population and the remaining 87% would fall under the latter category. In the 2016 global analysis, the Informed Public had a 60 Trust Index score, while the Mass Population only had a 48 Trust Index score. In 2017 the global trust gap widened an additional 3 points as the Mass Population Trust Index score fell to 45. However, in the United States, the gap is significantly wider with a 21 point spread. In the United States, the Informed Public Trust Score is much higher than the rest of the world at 68, while the Mass Population figure is 47. Great Britain follows with a 19 point spread and France with an 18 point spread.

Loss of Trust Leads to Major Change

With the loss of trust in these key institutions, we’ve seen the gradual erosion in both their influence and authority with the populace. The establishment had it, but over time they’ve lost both to the Mass Population. In 1958 trust in the American government was 73% according to Pew Research. (2) Also trust in our fellow citizen has declined steadily since the 1970’s. This shift has led to major changes in the world. A loss of trust in the European Union led to Brexit, a loss of trust in the American political class led to the election of a political newcomer to the office of President in America, distrust for anyone who disagrees with certain lifestyles or religious beliefs has driven partisanship to at an all-time high, and a steady string of product recalls has driven trust in global businesses to an all-time low.

The largest drop in trust from 2016 to 2017 was in the media sector, dropping globally by 5 points in just one year. What’s surprising about these results was that media trust in America didn’t change; remaining at a 47 Trust Score. Aside from Indonesia and India, every other developed nation on earth had declines in media trust; many all-time lows. Another surprise came in the government category. There was a significant amount of “noise” generated with the election of a new President. Expectations were that trust would drop to unheard-of levels, when in reality what happened was a full 8 point increase in trust of the United States government. This may be optimism or relief being felt by the American people after the long recession and years of heavy regulation under the Obama administration.

The Media Is Failing People

The media continues to show the largest trust declines; with the traditional media showing the largest declines as compared to other sources. Since 2012, traditional media trust has dropped from a 62 score to a 57 score. Social media has dropped from 44 to 41. New media or on-line media which isn’t part of the traditional group, showed the largest increase over the time period, rising from 46 to 51 and search engine trust also climbed by 3 points. Some of the identified reasons why trust in the media is falling so rapidly are obvious while others are a bit more subtle.

Many of the major news organizations have become de-facto arms of established political parties. There are too many leaked stories with no hard sources or grand fabrications built in the media on weak foundations. The internet allows for fact-checking by everyday people and any error made is called out almost immediately. Advertising has taken the driver’s seat and has been exercising more control on what is reported and what isn’t.

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News anchors and hosts are making it about them, instead of about the news. The barriers for entry into the news-reporting field are virtually nonexistent today, which allowed the rise of the new media and a direct challenge to the mainstream media. Moreover, the experts of the past are losing their status and many people are instead turning to peers for validation or corroboration. Celebrities are looked upon for their opinions on everything from food preparation to politics, to science. Internet heroes are giving their followers advice on just about everything. Religious leaders, activist groups, and grassroots organizations supporting causes are capturing the hearts and minds of regular people and heavily influencing their future.

Issues Driving Distrust

This shift in influence would likely not have happened if people felt good about the system. Today, a majority of people in the world (53%) believe the system is failing them, and about one-third of the remaining are uncertain, leaving only a small minority. There is a general lack of hope for the future, no confidence in most world leaders both in government and business, and a sense of injustice. Corruption continues across the world, often from government organizations, but no one is ever prosecuted or punished. Spending is out of control and rarely benefits the general population of most nations.

Political correctness has a stranglehold on almost every aspect of business and commerce, resulting in overbearing regulations and giving a podium to activists and special interest groups. Businesses move profits overseas to avoid taxes, salaries of top executives are out of control, and quality has slipped in many sectors. These examples are just the tip of the iceberg on what influences the Trust Score. In America, many issues drive distrust including immigration, globalization, and eroding social values/norms. It’s obvious that unless American entities change their approach, we can expect Trust Scores to continue declining.

Can We Save Things?

Not everyone is ready to accept these facts and might brush the entire notion off as a fad or short-term trend. However, we are seeing some of the world’s largest advertising spenders shifting funding from the digital space and moving back to television and radio. Many cite transparency issues or outright fraud, but moreover product manufacturers are unhappy with their products being linked to fake news stories. Brands, fearful of fallout, are working harder to keep their ads away from controversy. Both Google and Facebook (3) have publicly announced efforts to fight fake news, but many people aren’t fully buying it. Some see these leading tech companies as too large and attempting to silence the opinions of sites they don’t align with politically. Since most consumers of media have little influence, the burden, to drive change, will likely fall into the arms of companies and their advertising budgets. The internet is driven by money and when the spenders say enough is enough, and then we can expect to see less fake news and hopefully a restoration in trust of our media; which hopefully will ripple across the other three institutions.


(1) 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer global report - The Informed Public represents 13% of the global population. Four criteria were determined for qualification into this group: College education, between 25 and 64 years old, in the top 25% of household income per age group in each nation, and significant consumption of media and engagement in business news. Everyone else, who did not qualify for this segment of the global population falls into the Mass Population category.

(2) The Decline of Trust - Why are we losing confidence in each other? Psychology Today, Oct 18, 2016

(3) Google and Facebook Take Aim at Fake News Sites - The New York Times, Nov. 14, 2016

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2017 Ralph Schwartz

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