If we look at the turbulence that we are facing today in many of our 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 – see my blog from earlier this year: The battle for truth.
This has been mainly fuelled by a lack of positive leadership, opportunistic partisan politicians, partisan media and other people with particular vested interests, who have successfully been 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 rationalism, and this opens up the dangerous gateway to fake news (news people like to believe on an emotional level).
While we have become far more rational since the European period of Enlightenment it is important to realise that, as AC Grayling stated at a presentation I attended recently, although western democracy and science, as well as western legal, cultural and administrative institutions, now dominate our world the majority of people have not gone through similar processes of education, understanding, questioning and insight.
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 in politics, lack of education and other often ingrained beliefs.
The ongoing international benefits of the Enlightenment have greatly assisted in creating a better world. Despite its many problems life is much better for most of the 7 billion people who inhabit the earth today than it was for the 3 billion people who lived here 50 years ago.
Perhaps the current decline in trust started with the oil and coal giants who, for their own good only, succeeded in producing fake scientists who proclaimed that climate change was not an issue and that it certainly had nothing to do with the industries that they represented. Our institutions were unable to respond effectively to these fake scientists and their vested interests. Possibly concerns raised by evidence of the onset of climate change made people more likely to accept the reassuring denials of the fake scientists.
The Great Financial Crisis – and the fact that those who created it got away with it with millions of people suffering because of the greed of a few – fuelled massive resentment in the people from the affected countries. Institutions that had always been trusted let the people down, further creating high levels of distrust.
While similar events have occurred in the past a major difference was that these events coincided with an undermining of the traditional media. This was a direct consequence of the rise of the online media – and perhaps in particular of the social media – which provided fake news pedlars, vested interests and others with a platform where they were able to build echo chambers, and this further fuelled the groundswell among already disenfranchised people. In many countries traditional media battled to survive by creating their own partisan echo-chamber, further aggravating the situation. The new media were so captivated by their enormous commercial success and the market power they acquired that they didn’t foresee the negative consequences of their success.
Disenfranchisement had been simmering in the background but it had never reached the mainstream. Those who were negatively affected were mainly from the lower and middle income socio-economic brackets and they had been watching their lifestyle and income being eroded since the 1980s, while the top layer of the population grew richer at their expense (loss of permanent jobs, income freezes, globalisation, higher house prices, etc).
At the same time many people were faced with, and often overwhelmed by, massive technological changes – and cultural changes, as their societies became 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; and they now have the advantage of a dumbed-down press and of a social media that provides unchecked access to all kinds of false news. Any information that those disenfranchised people can get, and use to vent their frustration and anger, will do – fake or not. Anything against the establishment that could be used as ammunition for their cause is welcome.
Demagogues, with perhaps the President of the United States Donald Trump in the role of their ultimate champion, are more than happy to use fake news and fuel the deep cultural and economic concerns that reside within the disenfranchised parts of the population. This group (while actually representing only 20%-35% of the total population) has become a significant political force in recent times.
With people like Trump in charge further undermining of the truth is now well and truly underway. He has ordered that the term ‘climate change’ will no longer be used in government papers. He has also started removing a whole range of scientific data on all sorts of issues from the White House website. Via dozens of Executive Orders he is massively destabilising many of America’s trusted institutions. Some of these Orders will fail and some will become law but the damage being done in the process is immense.
The big question will be whether Americans can handle this barrage of fabricated news and lies, and the general undermining of the many proud democratic institutions of that country.
We have to be able to trust our government, media, businesses and all of the 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 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, and these and other social media companies have a lot to answer for – they have been able to successfully bypass the traditional checks and balances that were used in most of the traditional media to ensure that the facts and news items we received were based on verifiable information.
And the trouble is that once trust is lost it will take enormous effort, and a lot of time, to restore it, and 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 which we discussed before – is giving more power at the grassroots levels to 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.
While, for example, in Australia less than 25% of people trust the federal government, 75% do trust their local council. 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 grassroots-based developments is already unstoppable and well-recognised, with many cities and many mayors showing real leadership. As long as the Trumps of this world do not cause the massive amount of damage that they are in fact capable of the positive is that slowly but surely a new city and community based society and economy will start taking over from the dysfunctional layers in our society.
Interestingly, in the 2017 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 needed.
While technology (such as social media) can do great deal of damage that 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 them to create their own future.
While there are now understandably many calls for stricter regulation regarding the social media in relation to hate speech and fake news – Germany is in the process of passing specific legislation on this – regulations 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 are now giving those peddling fake news a new and powerful platform from which they can operate. However in reality those following the populists in general still represent a significant minority in western countries.
Trust still overwhelmingly exists at grassroots levels and from our communities and cities 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 leading companies are now finally addressing the issue within their own service and self-regulation would 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 greatly.