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 societies over the last decade or so. See also my blog from earlier this year: The battle for truth.
This has been mainly fuelled by 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 undermining the assumptions of fairness, shared values and equal opportunity. Those who have been undermining trust have also created an environment where many people have difficulties in separating fake news from the real facts.
In itself there is nothing new in people escaping into fake news, it is part of human behaviour, over the centuries we have seen many gullible people believing in fake news from religions, rouge governments, snake oil business men 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 slippery slope of fake news (news people emotionally like to believe).
While we have become far more rational since the Enlightenment it is important to realise that as A.C. Grayling stated at a recent presentation I went to, that while the results of enlightenment (such as: democracy, science as well as legal, cultural and administrative institutions) are now dominating our world, the majority of the people on earth have still not gone through a period of enlightenment.
While on a day to day level people all over the world do make rational decisions, at a higher level in relation to political, social and economic ideas, emotions – influenced by religion, opportunists in business and in politics, (lack of) education and other often ingrained beliefs – are still dominant in forming their ideas.
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 sudden decline in trust started with the oil and coal giants who for their own good only, succeeded in fake scientists to proclaim 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. Perhaps the daunting effects of climate change made people escape into denial and were thus more susceptible to those fake scientist.
The Great Financial Crisis, and the fact that those who created it got away with it at the cost of millions of people who suffered from the consequences of the greed of a few, fuelled a massive underlying descent through the populations in the affected countries. Once trusted institutions did 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 that was happening at the same time. 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 in so doing further fuelled the groundswell among already disenfranchised people. In many counties, traditional media created – in order to survive – their own partisan echo-chamber further aggravating the situation. The new media were too much 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 been able to generate any mainstream power. They were mainly from the lower and middle income socio-economic brackets and they had watched their lifestyle and income being eroded since the 1980s, while the top layer of the population only 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, as well as with 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 are provided with and that they can 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 false news and the deep cultural and economic concerns that were coming from the disenfranchised parts of the population. While this is a very critical part of the total population at the same time most of the time they don’t actually represent more than between 20%-35% of the population.
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 undermining many of America’s trusted institutions. Some of these Orders will fail and some will become law; however 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 receive are based on verifiable information.
The trouble is also 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 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 be a critical factor in restoring trust as well. There are many businesses that people do mistrust, but there are equally many businesses 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 understandable 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 which 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 providing those peddling fake news a new and powerful platform from where they can operate from. However, in all reality those following the populists in general still represent a significant minority in western countries.
Trust still overwhelmingly exist as grassroots levels and from our communities and cities we should be able to that a process of trust restoration That same internet platform is also available to those who want to provide a more positive message and build positive structures needed to face the complex society we live in.
We therefore need to be careful to not over regulate the internet and social media, some of the leading companies are now finally addressing the issue within their service and self regulation would be the preferred option.
With failing societal pillar elsewhere, businesses do have an important role to play in ensuring that trust still remains strong in our society and economy, without trust businesses and our economies in general will suffer greatly.