Digital is facing a Trust Crisis

Photo by Ravi Sharma on Unsplash

Over the last year we’ve seen a series of events fundamentally shake and undermine peoples’ confidence in a variety of facets of our society.

The global pandemic has redefined day-to-day life for people around the world – with almost two million lives lost and most peoples’ lives looking significantly different to how they did just one year ago. Widespread protests around systemic racism and racial justice led to a long-overdue wave of focus on diversity, equality and inclusion not only relating to the justice system but more broadly in society and the workplace. Most recently, events south of the border in the wake of the US election have shaken both the trust of many US residents in the ‘system’, and views of that system by people around the world.

These are just the headline events – each of these major events along with others on a smaller scale have rippled across our lives at a very personal and individual level.

A trust crisis

In this context, the global 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer finds the world in a trust crisis.

Richard Edelman refers to information bankruptcy, noting that in the face of an epidemic of misinformation, the institutions that we expect to guide the way in these moments – government and media – “have both failed to meet the test”.

“The 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer finds a new era of information bankruptcy and a trust ecosystem unable to confront it. The pandemic and infodemic are two strands of a Rambo DNA, inextricably linked in their destructive force. Government and media, the usual sources of quality information in a crisis, have both failed to meet the test.”

Richard Edelman

While the report itself is always immensely valuable in telling a macro picture, I’ve always found that the trust power of the report comes in the intersections of different threads of data and their implications. This year is no different. Amidst the gloomy outlook from this year’s Trust Barometer report, there are four significant implications for digital marketers and communicators:

  1. Digital is facing a trust crisis
  2. Brands need to build trust into their digital communications
  3. Now is the time for CEOs to speak out online
  4. A new mindset is needed in the face of rampant misinformation

Digital is facing a trust crisis

The Trust Barometer focuses on broader societal issues, but this year’s data touches on something I’ve been speaking about with our clients for several years now: There is an ongoing dearth of trust in the digital marketing field, and especially – but not only – in the social media space.

As this year’s report highlights, trust in all information sources is at record lows. Even search engines, which in the past have seemed remarkably resilient to some of the shifts faced by other channels, dipped below 60% for the first time since 2013.

But none have sunk as low as social media.

While social media usage surged over the last six months during the pandemic, and people continue to use it as a news source, there is an ever-widening trust gap between the number of people using social media and their trust in what they see on those platforms.

Social networks themselves are in the crosshairs, with a trust problem fueled by years of challenges. The privacy issues related to social are myriad and layered (see: The Social Dilemma), but I’d argue that events surrounding the 2016 US election – where privacy abuse in the Cambridge Analytica scandal played a significant role – proved a tipping point in trust and public awareness from which social networks have never truly recovered. COVID-19 misinformation, political conflict most recently capped by the de-platforming of President Trump, the ongoing whiplash-inducing saga that is TikTok and multiple mis-steps and self-inflicted wounds by the platforms have all compounded this of late.

The trust crisis in digital marketing goes beyond social media though, and to a great extent it is a crisis not just faced by – but caused by – the digital marketing field.

Myriad topics have chipped away at trust in the field over years, whether it’s creepy programmatic ad targeting, the market for peoples’ data, voice assistant privacy concerns, location-based tracking, facial-recognition tools or any of the other things that have made their way into the zeitgeist.

These issues have compounded over time, and as a result we are in the midst of seeing a privacy-first marketing landscape emerge through regulatory, technical and societal spheres. These will have a big impact on our ability to reach and influence audiences in the coming years.

Brands need to build trust into their digital communications

In the face of the trust deficit that digital marketing is facing, the implications are clear: in the absence of channels that are inherently trusted by the people we’re trying to reach, we need to start to more consciously and deliberately place trust as a key element of how we communicate with people.

This doesn’t mean every campaign has to be boring, earnest and beige, with talking-head videos staring people in the eye and slowly sapping our will to live. Some of this can manifest behind the scenes… raising the bar in influencer marketing by weeding out bad actors who have just bought their ‘followers’, implementing greater transparency around programmatic media or providing more value in return from the data we’re asking people to give us.

However, in a world where nearly 70% of people take at least some measures to avoid ads, there’s also an opportunity – perhaps an imperative – for us to think more carefully about how we approach our audiences directly.

Research shows that brand safety, values and purpose matter more as buying factors than ever before.  – from the people involved, to the way we make content from a brand recognizable by its audiences, to the causes that companies align themselves to along the way.

Critically, it is time to stop thinking with an inside-out perspective and start thinking about problems from the outside-in (here’s what they need to hear, vs here’s what we want to say to them).

Now is the time for CEOs to speak out online

It has never been more important for CEOs to speak out publicly.

Two years ago the 2019 Trust Barometer identified the central importance of the role of the workplace in the trust landscape. It noted that, “People have low confidence that societal institutions will help them navigate a turbulent world, so they are turning to a critical relationship: their employer.

This trend has only increased in importance over the last two years, and it has reached a clear inflection point in this year’s report, as highlighted by three key data points.

  1. Events of the last year have left businesses as the one institution seen as both ethical and competent, despite the massive impact of the pandemic on jobs and the economy. The success that businesses have seen in shifting their operations, contributing to vaccine development and rollout, and the stances we’ve seen companies take in the face of other major events led to a lift in perceptions around ethics, while mostly retaining its status as the most competent of the institutions.
  2. While trust in businesses broadly has declined, “my employer” has remained a mainstay of trust across every one of the markets the report considered, and trust in this area is either flat or up in two thirds of the markets.
  3. There is an expectation that CEOs speak out publicly. This expectation exists both internally and externally for companies. Employees see their CEOs as more credible than other sources, and the general population by an overwhelming margin expects CEOs to speak out on societal issues.

We’ve seen a significant shift towards CEOs finding their voice online over the last couple of years. This year’s report is a clear signal that for those who aren’t, now is the time.

A new mindset is needed in the face of rampant misinformation

The 2021 Trust Barometer highlights the epidemic of misinformation that we are all facing nowadays. An epidemic most clearly and recently highlighted by ongoing attempts to change the results of the US election based on fringe conspiracy theories which have been amplified and thrust into the mainstream by a combination of opportunistic politicians, far-right news networks and foreign state actors. At a societal level we’ve seen it manifest in discussions around the pandemic – most recently around vaccines – and racial justice protests. The level of disinformation activity around the UK’s Brexit vote has been similarly well-documented.

In fact, last year’s Trust Barometer highlighted that 76% of people worry about false information or fake news being used as a weapon.

This disinformation landscape isn’t limited to the societal level, nor is it just about conflicts between governments. There’s another level to this – one that plays out more directly for companies that find themselves as the subjects of this misinformation.

Recall the conspiracy theories last July around Wayfair and false allegations of human trafficking? This wasn’t just an isolated moment, nor is it only emerging now. In 2015, fake Twitter accounts associated with Russia’s Internet Research Agency attempted to spread false rumours of Walmart selling turkeys with salmonella a week before Thanksgiving. In 2017, Starbucks was forced to respond when fake stories originating on 4chan claiming it would give out free frappuccinos to undocumented immigrants in the US spread via Twitter.

It’s not enough to simply expect the tech companies – Facebook, Twitter, Google and others – to combat this situation in isolation. Companies need to start to prepare themselves. As Barron’s noted, “It is critical that companies have a response plan and capability in place and ready to go that includes communications, legal, and security elements for when they inevitably become a target.”

But even that is only the start. Our traditional crisis playbook is obsolete in the face of disinformation attacks. In a world where fringe outlets (and, yes, some politicians) work with a playbook that centres on overwhelming their targets with a sheer volume of misinformation, merely responding once misinformation becomes public is insufficient. Not only is it hard – perhaps impossible – to keep up with relentless misinformation, but fake news travels faster and farther than the truth (six times faster, it turns out).

In the face of this landscape, a reactive posture is insufficient. Brands must also be proactive in identifying risks, identifying misinformation before it breaks into the mainstream, and getting ahead of it.

Guardians of information quality

There’s no question that this year’s Trust Barometer paints a bleak picture of today’s trust landscape – and in the case of digital communication, this is just the latest data point in a number of long-standing trends.

But the data paints an equally vivid picture of the need for businesses to step up – in how they build and promote themselves and in how they protect their brands but also in being a voice of truth – a guardian of information quality amidst society’s information bankruptcy. The data is clear – at a time when other institutions are falling short, people expect brands to fill the void. And if we’re going to do that, we need to do it where people are spending their time: online.

(This post is based on the global 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer report. The Canadian report will be released on Feb 17, 2021. If you’re interested in attending the virtual launch event, head over here and register)

Dave Fleet
Managing Director and Head of Global Digital Crisis at Edelman. Husband and dad of two. Cycling nut; bookworm; videogamer; Britnadian. Opinions are mine, not my employer's.