Trust Craters In the United States — But Soars in China


Edelman’s Trust Barometer is out, and it paints a rather dismal picture for everyone but business. Is that an opportunity?

Edelman’s annual “Trust Barometer” comes out today, and this year the normally staid report feels more like a fun house mirror. The Trust Barometer has been tracking global sentiment around four interrelated sectors — Business, Government, NGOs, and Media — for more than a decade. But never in its history have the numbers fluctuated as widely as they did in 2017, and overall, the report paints a rather unflattering portrait — in particular for the United States.

Let’s dig in. Here are the conclusions I found most startling:

  • The US and China are swapping places. Average global trust levels stayed pretty much the same year to year, but the real story is buried in the averages: Trust in the US went down a whopping 9 points, while trust inside China rose 7 points — one of many indications that China is on the rise globally, which the US is nosediving. Asked which institution they most trusted, the Chinese chose “government.” The US? Not so much. Believe it or not, in the US, NGOs came out in first.
  • Trust cratered in the “Informed Public” — the most educated and wealthy survey respondents. This was driven almost entirely by an unprecedented 23-point drop in US respondents. In short, US influencers have thrown their hands up and lost confidence in their institutions.
  • Platform companies like Facebook and Google lost significant trust in 2017. Led by an overwhelming concern around fake news, trust in “Media” dropped to last place (putting Media below Government or Business), but a closer look shows that the entire drop is driven by a lack of faith in technology platform companies, which are included in the Media category. Trust in “journalism” actually increased, but trust in “platforms” decreased, as you can see below. Trust in “Experts” also increased, which seems counterintuitive, but feels like a promising development.

  • The public is confused by the Media. This isn’t surprising, but looking at the numbers in black and white is not easy if you’re in the media or tech platform industries. Nearly 60 percent of respondents say they are confused about whether or not news they see is “true.” Clearly this is an area where a lot of work is left to do — and so far, Facebook’s efforts seem well intentioned but…incomplete.
  • Business must lead. I chose this phrase as the theme for next month’s Shift Forum almost a year ago, well before this survey came out, so it was gratifying to see the Forum’s focus strongly echoed in the survey results. CEOs of companies are expected to lead on key social issues, a marked shift from prior years. Employers saw a 7 point increase in trust globally last year. And 56 percent of respondents said companies that put profit ahead of other stakeholders are “bound to fail.” In the absence of government leadership, business seems to be picking up the slack, a reality that cuts both ways, as the tech platforms are just beginning to understand.

As the world navigates a post-Trump reality, it’s clear citizens are turning to business (and non profits/NGOs) as the torch bearers for progress in society. That’s a huge opportunity for business, if its leaders can find the courage, and the integrity, to shoulder the responsibility we once placed in elected leaders. However, I’m personally not thrilled with the idea that we’re giving up on democratic institutions as the instruments of our collective will. Democracy is the worst form of government — until you look at all the others. And corporations are not built to govern, they’re built to provide services and make money. While I believe companies should aim to do more than make a profit, it’s naive to think they will replace the function of government. I for one hope the coming year will be one in which we all find more faith in democracy. That’s one reason we have devoted a significant portion of the Shift Forum agenda to that very question this year.

A full version of the Edelman report can be found here. Thanks to the folks at Edelman for sharing it with me in advance so I could share it with you.

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