Content questions: a crisis of trust

We’ve been talking about content, about who gets to decide what is and isn’t appropriate, and especially about what happens to the content you publish.

A lot of it comes down to trust. Can we trust the content we encounter? How do we know? And, of course, how can we create content that people will recognize as trustworthy?

Meet the Edelman Trust Barometer. Published by the Edelman research firm, the barometer is an international study that focuses on the degree to which people trust “institutions” — defined by Edelman as government, business, media, and NGOs.

Richard Edelman speaking in the video

Richard Edelman (screen shot from The Battle for Truth)

I don’t think I’m off base if I interchange the term content providers for institutions. After all, the content we consume — the content on which we base our opinions and our worldview — comes predominantly from government, business, media, and NGOs. And the content you create probably falls into one of those categories.

The newest Trust Barometer finds that people’s trust in institutions — or content providers — is dropping precipitously, especially in the U.S.

In the words of CEO Richard Edelman, “the United States is enduring an unprecedented crisis of trust.” Edelman even posted a short video, titled The Battle for Truth, in which he said (emphasis mine):

  • We don’t have shared facts. Therefore, we lack rational discourse.”
  • Silence is a tax on truth, and we have to speak up.”

By speaking up, Edelman means that it’s incumbent on every institution — every content provider — to “fill the void for quality information.” Trustworthy information.

I don’t disagree with him. But I doubt that every content provider is willing or able.

What do you and I, as consumers of content, do then?

Trusting the content we consume

First, as consumers of content, we look for ways to curate content so that, at the very least, we can guess whether the source is trustworthy. Last week I wrote about how the entrepreneur Steven Brill plans to help us by building a team of curators and then selling its services to the big search and social-media platforms.

How well will that work? Time will tell.

Second, we look to our own tribes. Humans don’t function in a trust vacuum. We need to trust something, or someone. In the absence of any other reliable guidance, human nature impels us to look to people who resemble us. People with similar backgrounds, people who think like us, people who see the world in the same way. Our tribes.

When we place our trust in our tribes, we’re reassured. The voices we hear sound a lot like our own voices. But we pay for that reassurance in two ways:

  • If we’re not careful, we become isolated in our own echo chambers, where we hear only the things that suit our preconceptions.
  • We become susceptible to the tribe’s prejudices, its misconceptions, and its hidden agendas. We’re also susceptible to unscrupulous actors who pretend to belong to our tribes — who seek to gain our trust by wearing masks, .

We’ve seen it happen in the American political scene. (And in other countries too, I think, although I don’t feel qualified to say.)

They talked about it at the recent South By Southwest conference, in what author Casey Newton called the reckoning.

Is there another way?

There you go. We seek better ways to curate content, and we look to our tribes. In the face of a flood of misinformation, is that enough? As evidenced by American politics, and by the discussion at SXSW, I’d say no. It’s not enough.

We need more. We — all of us — need a bigger dose of critical thinking. We’ll talk about that next week.

In the meantime, what do you think? What do you do to ensure the trustworthiness of the content you consume? How can we, as content providers, become trustworthy voices in the public square?

Finally, in light of everything I just said, I have to ask this: how much should we trust the Trust Barometer? I only discovered it in the last couple of weeks, and the people at Edelman, even though I like what they say and even though they sound credible and earnest, reveal little about the methodology they used to compile their results.

We want trust to be easy. But it’s not.

5 thoughts on “Content questions: a crisis of trust

  1. Mark Baker

    You can look at it as a decline in trust of institutions, in which case it may worry you, or you can look at it as a growing realization of the untrustworthiness of institutions, in which case it ought to delight you.

    Before the web (social media, if you like) institutions dominated the production and sharing of information. Where they did not lie outright, they often mislead by selection and omission. But their lies, selections, and omissions were hard to detect and so their word was more often accepted as true because it was seldom contradicted.

    Today, the distortions of the institutions are laid bare for all to see. An entirely appropriate crisis of confidence results. In itself, that is a good thing.

    Of course, all kinds of disinformation gets disseminated as well. A public once complacent about the information made available to them now recognizes that most of it serves one interest or another. Those who care to get at the truth thus realize that sorting fact from fiction is a much more difficult task than they once assumed. That too is a good thing. You can’t solve a problem until you realize how difficult it is.

    But let’s not fool ourselves. Most people don’t want the truth. They want the promotion of those ideas that support their interests and they want all contrary information suppressed. Any institution you set up as a filter is far more likely to filter in favor of one interest or another rather than of objective truth. (Most people, alas, are convinced that their interest and the truth are one and the same.)

    We don’t need institutions to cut through the chaos. Insofar that that effort succeeded it would simply set us back to the time when institutions controlled the idea that were disseminated free from significant contradiction.

    Rather, we need the chaos to hold the institutions’ feet to the fire, to expose them when they slant and omit and select deceptively. This will not lead to an age of calm reason based on shared facts — because most people don’t want facts, they want the justification of their interests. But it makes the deceptive promotion of those interests a little harder to get away with, and that is a good thing.

    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      “You can look at it as a decline in trust of institutions, in which case it may worry you, or you can look at it as a growing realization of the untrustworthiness of institutions, in which case it ought to delight you.”

      Or maybe some of both — which concerns me and fascinates me at the same time. You’re right, Mark: we don’t need institutions to cut through the chaos. We need people. We need people who want the truth. It’s a time of great opportunity, but a successful outcome is by no means ensured.

      1. Mark Baker

        Indeed, it more than ever comes down to the will and courage or individual people, which is much better than it coming down to power and money.

        Not, of course, that we can expect power and money to sit idly by and accept the diminishment of their influence, which is why we must apply a good chunk of our will and courage to keeping the net neutral and the web free from censorship, a good chunk to refuting lies and calling out humbug wherever we find it, and a good chunk to self-examination and the practice of mildness in argument, not seeking to take offence where none was intended or to portray an opposing position as more radical than it really is. The defence of truth begins with being truthful about the ideas and the people we disagree with rather than trying to demonize them.

  2. Pingback: Content questions: Critical Thinking 101 | Leading Technical Communication

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