Who do you trust?

I have been fortunate enough to have been in working in Edelman at one point in my career. While there, I came across their Trust Barometer property that they have been tracking since 2001. The Trust Barometer tracks people’s trust (through sample surveys) across 4 key pillars in the society – Government, NGOs, Businesses and Media.

It was in 2005 when the Trust Barometer first observed that beyond these 4 institutions, there is a gradual increase of trust in ‘people like me’ (including peers, employees of the company who are not in the C-level, friends, family, colleagues). This follows the early interest in blogging in that period, and platforms like Orkut and MySpace since the now-popular social networks had not launched by then. LinkedIn had launched in 2002, while Facebook opened up for people beyond the universities only in September 2006, and Twitter launched in July 2006.

From 2005, trust in ‘people like me’ has steadily risen and has overtaken the other institutions consistently, with the rise of social media platforms and social networking. In the 20-year overview of the Trust Barometer, Edelman found that trust in ‘a person like me’ was overtaken only by ‘academic expert’, and this makes sense in the pandemic-ridden world where we do trust professional healthcare/academic experts more than anyone else.

In 2020, after the world has gotten thoroughly used to social media and social networking, we do seem to trust people-like-us more than anyone else. This is evident in so many ways.

What we read/view/watch/listen/consume, or choose to do so, could have a tangible impact if it comes recommended by someone we know personally, or from someone who we see as being like ourselves. This is one of the most important reasons why we click on links, why we start playing a video that was served in our timelines, or why we forward something.

This is the primary crux of the social media influencers industry, at least till those influencers become super-influencers. If they become super-influencers, their utility value shifts from trusted people to the way brands use celebrities – to break the attention flow and gain visibility.

Not just influencers – when we search for online reviews on anything (a service or a product), we stumble upon countless reviews by people and we assume they are reviews from people like us even though we have no ay to be sure. Also, all those people-like-us are strangers – we do not know them!

But, there is trouble in trusting people-like-us in current times. In our highly polarized times, trusting something that came from a friend, parents, siblings, school/college mates, neighbors, family members and colleagues is fraught with a lot of danger. Why? Very simple reason – they trust someone like them for sharing what they did!

So, it’s a chain! We all trust the person who shared something with us, and we also trust them enough to believe that they had done the diligence check before sharing. Chances are, nobody did any check precisely because they all trust that the person who shared it has done so.

This is the kind of trusted chain that divisive forces bent on weaponizing misinformation and disinformation thrive on. And it is so easy to float some kind of false news, or fake theory, on any topic and see it spread massively because everyone trusts the person who sent it to them, and doesn’t bother to verify the claims.

The irony is that such verification is not very difficult these days – it’s usually a Google search away. With a search, you are likely to get either conflicting reports on the news or theory which could at least alert you that you are not to take that news/theory at face value. Or, the search could help you unravel that the news/theory is patently falseā€¦ after which you are less likely to share it.

The trusting people-like-me could still be acceptable for consuming/reading/watching content online because such consumption stops with you. But it gets particularly dangerous when you also want to share it or form an opinion about something/someone based on what you consumed. That’s when the dangerous implications of misinformation and disinformation manifest in the real world.

Besides being responsible for not blindly trusting something just because it came from someone we trust, our responsibility should also extend to correcting/pointing out false information when we see it. We see it so very often in WhatsApp Groups, yet we stop short of telling someone that their share is false, or fake because that may antagonize the sharer. But that’s how misinformation and disinformation spreads without being corrected or challenged. The more you challenge and point out to falsehoods, the less likely for that person to blindly share something in the future. Your one act of stopping the chain and pointing to the truth could be a wide impact on future falsehoods!

So, please do remember the next time you feel compelled to share or forward something – check the source and veracity before you hit share or forward. Sharing or forwarding something that is false or fake affects your personal credibility too, only because you place your trust on someone who shared that with you.

It helps, in current times, to question everything and everyone, relentlessly. Such questioning does not mean you are cynical or skeptical about people you know – it simply means you are conscious to, and are aware that the people you trust could be misled.

There’s a perfect saying in Tamil that is quoted often:
kaNNaal paarpadhum poi
kaadhaal ketpadhum poi
theera visaarippadhey mei

It means,
What you see may be false
What you hear may be false
The truth would present itself when you consciously ask for it.

Remember the times we are in, filled with not just fake news, but also deepfake videos that seem and sound real but are not!

Cover image courtesy: Inc Magazine.

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