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How our trust was broken

News24
11 Mar 2018, 17:40 GMT+10

President Cyril Ramaphosa has a massive task ahead of him in trying to restore citizens' broken trust in government.

According to the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer released this week, trust in the government as an institution is an at all time low - at a mere 14%.

The online survey was conducted in 28 countries between October and November last year and more than 33 000 people were polled. It focused on government, business, media and nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) as society's mainstream institutions.

A trust crisis

Research found that the world is in a "trust crisis". Belief in institutions' ability "to do what is right" and play their role is showing a significant decline in 20 of the 28 countries covered by the poll.

Six of the countries polled - including South Africa and the US - experienced very sharp declines in trust levels.

In fact South Africa is now considered the third most distrusting society.

Across the four institutions the US shows the most extreme trust loss, with an astonishing 37% decline.

The US is followed by Italy with a 21% decline and Brazil and South Africa with 17%.

India and Colombia are next with 13% each. China and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are at the top of the six countries which made "trust gains" - achieving 27% and 24% respectively.

In South Africa trust in NGOs fell from 58% to 50%, business from 56% to 53% and media from 39% to 35%. Government is the worst performer, falling from 15% to 14%. Very worrisome is that the declines cut across the general population, including the so-called "informed public" - the educated segment which falls into the top 25% of income earners and which consumes news regularly.

Government the most broken

Asked which institution was the most broken in the country, 82% of South Africans said it was the government. This compares with 42% of the global average of citizens who believe their governments are the most broken of their countries' institutions. Only 6% of South Africans believe the media is the most broken and the figures for the NGOs and business are 6% and 4%, respectively.

Governments are distrusted in 21 countries but South Africa is one of only eight that shows a trajectory of growing distrust. The Donald Trump-led US government had the biggest fall in trust levels with a 14% decline.

It was again China and the UAE governments - the least democratic on the list - that enjoy the most trust among their citizens.

The fake news effect

According to Edelman, the advent of fake news is having a negative effect on media credibility.

Sixty-two percent of South Africans believe that "the average person does not know how to tell good journalism from rumour and falsehoods" and that 54% say it is becoming harder to tell whether a piece of news is produced by a credible media outlet.

Sixty-nine percent of South Africans are worried about fake news being used as a weapon, which is not surprising given the proliferation of questionable news sites and social media bots that were set up by Gupta-aligned organisations.

Worry for media

A concerning trend for news outlets is the decline in trust in media, something that could be a by-product of this conflation of rumour and reality. Even more concerning - for media, policymakers and decision takers - is the growing disengagement with news. Just fewer than half of respondents said they consume news less than weekly; 24% said they consume news produced by major news organisations on a more regular basis. This bodes ill for the creation of an informed, rational population. There is, however, a 27% rate of "amplification", the forwarding and passing of news several times a month.

More than 60% of respondents said news organisations are overly focused on attracting large audiences rather than reporting the news.

More than half - 55% - said media outlets "sacrifice accuracy to be the first to break a story". The same number said media supports an ideology instead of informing the public.

NGOs in the negative

It was a bad year for NGOs in 14 of the countries as trust levels fell.

Although in most countries the view is still neutral or in positive territory, NGOs are badly distrusted in 10 of the countries under review. Almost all of these are in advanced democracies.

Although the view of South African NGOs has not fallen below the 50% mark, the country is among those with the biggest losses, alongside Italy, the US and Canada.

Business must lead

A surprising finding, perhaps a consequence of government dysfunction in recent years, is that despite the decline in trust levels there is a belief that business is best placed to lead South Africa to a "better future".

A staggering 77% of respondents said CEOs "should take the lead on change rather than waiting for the government to impose it".

More good news for local business leaders is that South Africa and India came out tops in terms of the credibility of its chief executives. In most of the countries surveyed, the attitude towards chief executives is either one of distrust or neutrality.

In the world's biggest economies, such as the US, Japan, Germany and the UK, the perception of chief executives is decidedly negative. There is, however, an improvement in all countries except Argentina.

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