The global public relations firm Edelman has conducted surveys about public trust for more than two decades, beginning after the 1999 World Trade Organization’s meeting in Seattle was marred by anti-globalization riots. Tonia Reis, director of Edelman’s Trust Barometer surveys, said trust is a precious commodity that’s vital for the economy and government to function.
“Trust is absolutely essential to everything in society working well,” Reis said. “It’s one of those things that, like air, people don’t think about it until they realize they don’t have it, or they’ve lost it or damaged it. And then it can be too late.”
For experts who study misinformation and human cognition, the fraying of trust is tied to the rise of the internet and the way it can be exploited on contentious issues of social and economic change.
Distrust and suspicion offered obvious advantages to small bands of early humans trying to survive in a dangerous world, and those emotions continue to help people gauge personal risk today. But distrust is not always well suited to the modern world, which requires people to trust the strangers who inspect their food, police their streets and write their news. Democratic institutions, with their regulations and checks and balances, are one way of adding accountability to that trust.
When that trust breaks down, polarization and anxiety increases, creating opportunities for people pushing their own “alternative facts.”
“People can’t fact check the world,” said Dr. Richard Friedman, a New York City psychiatrist and professor at Weill Cornell Medical College who has written about the psychology of trust and belief. “They’re awash in competing streams of information, both good and bad. They’re anxious about the future, and there are a lot of bad actors with the ability to weaponize that fear and anxiety.”
Those bad actors include grifters selling bad investments or sham remedies for COVID-19, Russian disinformation operatives trying to undermine Western democracies, or even homegrown politicians like Trump, whose lies about the 2020 election spurred the Jan. 6 attack. [Continue reading…]