Who do you trust?

Two recent surveys and a critique of an international ‘Trust Barometer’ give vastly different views of who and what Australians trust.

One is relentlessly upbeat, one is highly critical and one gives an interesting sidelight on the issue.

In 2020 an Australian communications company, Senate SHJ, surveyed what communication elements contribute to social cohesion in the community and the degree to which the public trusts communication from various sources – measuring whether Australians listen to and trust information from the sources and then combining the elements in a Togetherness Index.

The recent 2021 results show some declines in whether people trust and listen to their governments. Trust in Federal Government communications has fallen from 54% to 42%. Trust in State Governments’ communications is also down from 52% to 45% – reflecting a significant difference between the States and the Feds and probably reflecting the reality that the Feds have largely been missing in action on most areas whereas State Governments are active.

Business has spent a lot of time talking about environmental sustainability and similar issues but their protestations don’t have much impact on the public. The Index says trust in communication by leaders of large businesses has fallen from 33% to 29% over the year.

The Index found that only 24% of the sample think about messages communicated by large businesses compared with 27% in 2020.

A lot of corporate communications staff seem, therefore, not to be earning their keep. However, given the billions in subsidies the Morrison Government is giving big business  the various lobbyists are earning theirs.

The Edelman Trust Barometer has been around for longer than the Togetherness Index and is more controversial. It’s conducted by a multinational PR company which has been subject to much criticism for its work with fossil fuel industries.

The 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer finds that “trust across all Australian institutions has reached an all-time high, resulting in significant gains for business (+11 points), government (+17 points), NGOs (+8 points) and media (+12 points).”

“At the same time, Australia’s composite trust index recorded the largest gain globally (+12 points) among the 28 countries surveyed.

“All institutions are now perceived as ethical, and are trending towards ‘competent’ territory, with business and NGOs the only institutions seen as both competent and ethical.”

This is a dramatic turnaround in the Trust Barometer’s 2020 funding which found that no institution was believed to be ethical and competent.

“Business has emerged as the institution regarded as the most competent, holding a 30-point lead over government and 12 points over NGOs. NGOs are seen as the most ethical institution leading by 7 points over business and government, and 13 points over media.”

One of the more controversial aspects of the Edelman research is the distinction it draws between the attitudes of ‘the informed public’ and ‘the mass population.’ One can argue about the distinction, but the reality of modern opinion is that it is composed of a vast tapestry of different segments which sometimes coalesce but mainly focus on different priorities, interests and subject.

But perhaps Edelman is channelling Marxist thinkers who divide the world into capitalists, the proletariat and the lumpenproletariat?

Edelman finds that “Australia for the second year running has the largest trust inequality gap on record globally, with a 22 point difference between the informed public (77 points) and the mass population (55 points).”

One finding is counter-intuitive but, if its right, Morrison is in even bigger trouble than it appears. The Barometer finds that Australians are more concerned about the environment compared to contracting Covid-19 themselves; 66% of Australians are concerned about climate change and 36% are fearful, sitting ahead of concerns over contracting Covid-19 at 54%.”

Unsurprisingly “Australian media continues to lag other institutions by double-digit figures; with no one media information source seen as trusted. Traditional media (-3 points) and search engines (-1 point) have continued to fall, while owned channels and social media have jumped 5 and 9 points respectively.”

The Togetherness Index also looks at the importance of social media. It finds that people in 2021 trust what they see on social media (excluding family and friends) slightly more than they did in 2020 – up from 24% to 26%. The methodological exclusion of friends and families is a significant factor which is worth more research.

The survey also found that only 20% of people believe messages communicated through social media have been influential. It may be ubiquitous, but it may also not be as significant as imagined. On the other hand, a fifth of the survey said communication through social media might change their behaviour – a proportion which would create a landslide win if applicable to an election.

The AFR Chanticleer column (23 July 2021) investigated the Edelman research further, perhaps prompted by the survey finding that 64 per cent of Australia’s ‘mass population’ believe “journalists and reporters are purposely trying to mislead people by saying things they know are false or gross exaggerations”. Some would argue this is a reasonable assumption if one consumes Murdoch media.

Professor Petko Kalev told Chanticleer the Barometer was ‘neither scientific nor rigorous’ focussing on misconceptions about the term ‘population’ in statistical analysis.

He also noted an anomalous situation in which eight of the nine countries at the top of the Edelman trust index are, according to Transparency International, some of the most corrupt and least transparent in the world.

Andrew Charlton, an Accenture MD, said the Edelman findings contrasted with the fact that “The five state and territory elections held during the pandemic have all been won quite convincingly by the incumbent party, reflecting a relatively high degree of trust and satisfaction with Australian governments.”