After a year of unprecedented disaster and turbulence, the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer reveals an epidemic of misinformation and widespread mistrust of societal institutions and leaders around the world. The disaster is that people don’t know where or who to turn to for reliable information. But, particularly in times of turbulence and volatility, trust is what needed by society to grow, rebuild and rebound.
Crisis of leadership
Most respondents believe that government leaders (57%), business leaders (56%), and journalists (59%) are purposely trying to mislead people by saying things they know are false. In fact, the global infodemic has driven trust in all news sources to record lows with social media (35%) and owned media (41%) the least trusted, while traditional media (53%) saw the largest drop in trust at eight points. 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.
“This is the era of information bankruptcy,” said Richard Edelman, CEO of Edelman. “We’ve been lied to by those in charge, and media sources are seen as politicized and bias. The result is a lack of quality information and increased divisiveness.”
Business (61%) has emerged as the most trusted institution, replacing government (53%), and is the only institution deemed ethical and competent; business outscores government by 48 points on competency and is approaching NGOs in ethics. Over the last five months, business seized the high ground of trust by proactively developing vaccines in record time and finding new ways to work. Trust continues to move local, with respondents placing even higher reliance on ‘my employer’ at 76%, and ‘my employer CEO’ at 63%.
This year’s report reveals that the biggest opportunity to earn business trust is guarding information quality. Fifty-three percent of respondents believe corporations need to fill the information void when the news media is absent. Communications from ‘my employer’ is the most trusted source of information (61%), beating out national government (58%), traditional media (57%), and social media (39%).
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%) and Chinese (30%) 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).
Other key findings from the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer include:
- Only one in four respondents practice good information hygiene, news engagement, avoid echo chambers, verify information, and do not amplify unvetted information.
- Among those who practice poor information hygiene there is substantially less willingness to get the vaccine within the first year of its availability (59% versus 70% for people with good information hygiene). There is even greater hesitancy about the vaccine among Blacks in the U.S., based on past and present medical inequities and mistreatment.
- 56% believe the pandemic will accelerate the rate at which companies replace human workers with AI and robots.
- 52% of respondents that have a choice to work from home or their workplace choose to work at home and 58% of those cite the risk of contracting Covid-19 while commuting or being in the office as the reason.
- Academic experts (59%) and company technical experts (59%) remain the most credible spokespeople but experienced an 8-point and 10-point drop, respectively. The largest drop was among regular employees (down 14 points to 40 percent) and a person like yourself (down 7 points to 53%).
While the world seems to be clouded by mistrust and misinformation, there is a glimmer of hope in business. When the government is absent, people clearly expect businesses to step in and fill the void and solve today’s challenges. That’s why businesses need to address 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%) believe that when the news media is absent, corporations have a responsibility to fill the information void. 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. So, provide trustworthy content that is truthful, unbiased and reliable to serve society.