Today’s Key Problem is the Lack of Trust

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If we look at the turbulence that we are facing today in many Western societies, it becomes clear that a key underlying reason for the current chaotic situation is the lack of trust that has crept into our lives over the last decade or so. This has been mainly fuelled by a lack of positive leadership, opportunistic partisan politicians, partisan media and others – with particular vested interests – that have been successfully undermining the trust that we had in our institutions as well as our assumptions of fairness, shared values and equal opportunity. Those who have been undermining trust have also created an environment where many people find it difficult to separate fake news from the real facts.

In itself, there is nothing new in people being taken in by fake news. Over the centuries, we have seen many gullible people believing in fake news from religions, rouge governments, snake oil businessmen and so on. In one way or another, we all suffer from this at times. Often in turbulent times, emotions take over from rationale and this opens up the dangerous gateway to fake news. On a day-to-day level, people do make rational decisions, but in relation to political, social and economic ideas, emotions still dominate when they are forming ideas and opinions. They are influenced by religion, opportunists in business and politics, lack of education, and other – often ingrained – beliefs.

The financial crisis of 2008, with millions of people suffering because of the greed of a few, has fuelled massive resentment in people from the affected countries. Institutions that had always been trusted are perceived to have let the people down, creating high levels of distrust. These events have coincided with an undermining of the traditional media with the rise of online media – and perhaps in particular – social media, which has provided fake news pedlars, those with vested interests and others a platform where they have been able to build echo chambers. This has further fuelled the groundswell among already disenfranchised people. In many countries, traditional media has battled to survive by creating its own partisan echo-chamber, further aggravating the situation. These new media groups have been so captivated by their enormous commercial success and the market power they have acquired that they haven’t foreseen the negative consequences of their success.

Disenfranchisement had been simmering in the background, but it had never reached the mainstream. Those negatively affected have mainly been from the lower and middle income socio-economic brackets. People have been watching their lifestyles and income being eroded since the 1980s, with the loss of permanent jobs, income freezes, globalisation, higher house prices, etc., while the top layer of the population grow richer at their expense. At the same time, many people have been faced with and often overwhelmed by massive technological and cultural changes as their societies have become more and more diversified with migrants and refugees.

As we have seen throughout thousands of years of history, such environments of disenfranchisement make fertile ground for demagogues and populists that now have the advantage of a dumbed-down press and a social media to provide unchecked access to all kinds of false news. Any information that those disenfranchised people can get and use to vent their frustration and anger, they will do – fake or not. Anything against the establishment that could be used as ammunition for their cause is welcome.

We have to be able to trust our governments, media, businesses and all of other institutions. Based on trust, we can run our society and economy effectively, but without trust our modern society cannot function. The Edelman Trust Barometer states: We have moved beyond the point of trust being simply a key factor in product purchase or selection of employment opportunity; it is now the deciding factor in whether a society can function.

Intentional and repeated betrayal in particular is enormously damaging. This is pushing people further into the echo chambers of Facebook and Google. The trouble is that once trust is lost it will take enormous effort and a lot of time to restore it. At the moment, all the signs are pointing in the opposite direction.

The only way out is a trend that has already been set in motion and this is to give more power at grass roots levels in our cities and communities. We can already see that more and more people are resorting to the trust that exists within their own families, communities, tribes, etc. If we can tilt the playing field more in the direction of communities and cities, we might be able to restore trust from the bottom up.

The underlying trend towards more grass roots-based developments is already unstoppable and well-recognised, with many cities and mayors showing real leadership. So long as the Donald Trumps of this world do not cause a massive amount of damage, the positive is that slowly but surely, a new community based society and economy will start taking over from the dysfunctional layers of our society.

Interestingly, in the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer, businesses still scored significantly higher in the trust index than government and media. So businesses can also be a critical factor in restoring trust. There are many businesses that people mistrust, but there are many that they do trust, and leadership from this latter group is much needed.

While technology such as social media can do a great deal of damage, the same technology also can bring people together in very positive ways and help people to collaborate, bypass the old defunct structures and move society forward. Technology can also facilitate the building of smart communities and smart cities, empowering people to create their own future.

There are now understandably many calls for stricter regulation regarding social media in relation to hate speech and fake news, and Germany is in the process of passing specific legislation on this. Regulation can also stifle innovations that could be used to address these problems in a better way.

So, in summary, while fake news and populism has been around for many centuries, modern communication media is now giving those that peddle fake news a new and powerful platform from which they can operate. However, in reality, those following the populists seem to represent a significant minority in Western countries. Trust still overwhelmingly exists at grass roots levels in our communities and cities, so we should be able to create a process of trust restoration. That same internet platform is also available to those who want to provide a more positive message and build the positive structures needed to manage the complex society we live in. We therefore need to be careful not to over-regulate the internet and social media. Some of the world’s leading companies are now finally addressing the issues within their own service and self-regulation, which could be the preferred option.

With pillars crumbling elsewhere in our society, businesses have an important role to play in ensuring that trust remains strong. Without it, businesses and economies in general will suffer a great deal.

Global Seven News

Paul Budde

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