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  • Jerry Schuitema

Believe it or not

What happens when information becomes increasingly less credible?

Fed; filtered; fake; false and alternative facts are words increasingly being heard in relation to news and other information sources. Even the recognised bastions of credibility and authority are no longer immune.

I have spent most of my life involved in and close to news. I cannot remember a time when information conveyed by popular and niche media has been received with such scepticism. This could be healthy if people were encouraged to do some cross checking, but that seldom happens and most prefer to either accept or reject depending on their own drawing bias. For a split second, however, even false information is believed and when it is proved false, the effects linger. In the end, divergent views are cemented and even polarised, creating greater disharmony when it should be doing the opposite.

There are many reasons for this, including the explosion of information technology and information overload. The results are predictable: purveyors lean towards immediacy, populism, headline hysteria and a bit of truth stretching; while audiences or readers orientate towards information that confirms or does not challenge their beliefs. A free flow of credible information is the thread that holds the social tapestry together and the ultimate nutrient for a functioning democracy. Today it is more likely to tear it apart. When knowledge is no longer a guarantee of enlightenment and insight, distrust becomes entrenched not only of sources, but of institutions and each other.

In a recent article (see here), I touched on the implosion of trust in the establishment globally. One of the biggest declines was trust in the media. Of the 28 countries measured in the latest Edelman Trust barometer, the media was distrusted in 82% of them and is at an all-time low in 17.

At a 39% trust score, South Africa falls into the category where most distrust the media. Yet trust in the media is still significantly higher than in countries such as Sweden, France, the U.K., Japan and Australia.

A similar pattern emerges with general trust in the institutional categories of government, business, media and NGO’s. (See graphic here). There has been a sharp decline in trust generally in what Edelman describes as a “World of Distrust”, and its global trust index shows that less than half of the population trust the establishment they live in. Trust in the United States was just over half, but that was before the election of Donald Trump as President. Trust in South Africa was measured at 42%, the same as Australia, and better than countries such as Germany, France, U.K., South Korea and Japan.

But at only 15%, South Africa still has the lowest trust in Government of all of the polled countries. (See graphic here.) At 76%, China heads the pack of most trusted governments, followed by the U.A.E., India and Indonesia.

If N.G.O’s are often seen to be doing what governments should be doing, then by and large they are better at it. (See Graphic here). At 53% globally, they head the list of most trusted institutions. Of course, that is still a rather low score and has declined over the past year; indicative of the paltry state of trust in the establishment world-wide. South African NGO’s fared better than the global average at a 58% trust score.

Business too is generally trusted more than government and the media. (See graphic here.) Although Edelman says it is on the brink of distrust, it still has a trust score of more than half. Of course, if you turn that around and say “nearly half distrust business” to do the right thing, it becomes another frightening indictment of business behaviour, most of which, I would argue again, relates to how business sees its purpose in society.

Trust in South African business has declined by 4% in the past year to 56%. In part, at least, that may be attributable to the ongoing anti-business rhetoric that has become politically popular. But its trust score is still better than the global average and there’s a huge gap between that score and the 15% trust in government. What the populist politicians don’t seem to recognise is that tearing down trust in business is not going to enhance trust in them, and indeed will merely add fuel to disillusionment and ultimate dissent.

After that statistical refrain, let me add that in the last few years the validity of opinion polls has been severely challenged. They are useful only to the extent that they can show trends and comparisons, gaining weight with the sample size, regularity and longevity. But even comparisons, such as the country references in this poll, could be suspect because different communities could have different standards by which they judge trustworthiness.

What was more useful in this poll was the question put to the respondents on what business can do to regain trust. It clearly has an opportunity to influence a country’s destiny and secure its future role by enhancing that trust by: (Ranked in order.)

  1. Treating employees well.

  2. Offering high quality products or service.

  3. Listening to customers.

  4. Paying fair share of taxes.

  5. And following ethical business practices.

Judging by responses to my previous article on the shareholder-value driven model, there are some who believe that the best way is business as usual and that the benefits of this model must simply be promoted more convincingly. Only the naïve can truly believe that a model so singularly focussed on self-enrichment of one stakeholder often at the expense of others can engender trust. Ultimately society will dictate in the only way it knows how – “radical” economic transformation through more laws, restrictions and prescriptions. And that by an institution that is even less trustworthy.

For business it’s more than about being nice. It’s about survival.

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