As a new administration confronts massive challenges, endless questions and plenty of doubts about the republic’s future, one thing is clear: The years-long misinformation campaigns amplified by cable news networks and social media — which some have called the "infodemic" — helped plunge the U.S. into multiple crises at once.
That’s the main takeaway from the annual Trust Barometer report from the public relations firm Edelman, and the findings this year just aren’t pretty.
For those of you who have coped with the uncle or cousin at the holiday table who kept saying, “Well, I heard on Facebook...” about anything ranging from Antifa to Mike Pence to Mark Zuckerberg, you’ll appreciate Edelman’s findings as much as you’ll be discouraged by them.
First, the bad news: Almost 60 percent of the more than 30,000 people Edelman surveyed said government officials, business leaders, and journalists are intentionally misleading people by saying and posting information they know is false. “This is the era of information bankruptcy,” Richard Edelman, the firm’s CEO, said in a statement.
The survey also found that less than 1 in 4 of those surveyed practice what’s known as “information hygiene,” which in Edelman’s definition includes taking actions such as fact-checking information or avoiding the din of social media noise.
The consequences are stark: Well over half of those who lagged in vetting information were less willing to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Almost the same amount believe the pandemic is a ploy to replace human workers with robots or artificial intelligence.
The good news is: Due to this infodemic crisis, doors are opening wider for the business community. Just over 60 percent of those surveyed by Edelman said business is the most trusted institution, well outpacing government. Further, more than 75 percent indicated they trust their employers, and almost two-thirds place trust in their companies’ CEOs.
As encouraging as the results may be for companies, the challenge they face is to not fumble this opportunity. Companies would be wise to prioritize transparency over jargon, encourage open conversations about where an organization succeeds and where it’s falling short, and not be afraid of taking a stand on some of the most polarizing issues of today.
On that last point, speaking out and taking action on challenges many of us find triggering can be difficult. After all, communications professionals and public relations firms generally still advise their corporate clients to take a more cautious approach when addressing social and economic issues, if they even broach them at all.
But last summer’s calls for social justice, in addition to the violence in D.C. only two weeks ago, have shown that there is no nuanced or “both sides” formula to address these problems. The sword cuts both ways: If more of us are trusting companies, it also means we expect them to not only say what they believe, but actually follow through on doing the right thing during this fraught time. Then, perhaps, we can emerge from the depths of this infodemic.
Image credit: Preston Low
Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He's based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.