The pandemic’s toll on the public’s trust

A woman wears a face mask as she walks in the Old Port in Montreal on January 10, 2021. The Canadian Press/Graham Hughes

Trust in institutions has plunged in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, as fearful citizens perceive governments and business leaders to be purposely trying to mislead the public by saying things they know are false or gross exaggerations, according to the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer. The global survey––typically released at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, but issued virtually this year––surveyed more than 33,000 people in 28 countries on their trust levels in government, media, business and non-governmental organizations. Here are some highlights: 

The public trusts the private sector more than the government: Businesses, according to the survey, are the only institutions seen as both competent and ethical. By contrast, much of the global public perceives government to be both less competent and unethical. And despite 56 per cent of respondents suspecting business leaders of knowingly spreading falsehoods, businesses have comparably become more trusted than governments in 18 out of 27 countries surveyed. An exception: Canada, where trust in government was up nine points to 59 per cent, while trust in business was up only three points to 56 per cent.

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Most people trust their employers, but feel CEOs should step up: In most countries surveyed, trust in employers was either stable or rising—in Canada, 76 per cent of respondents said they trusted their employer, a one percentage-point increase from the year prior. South of the border, that number was 72 per cent, a two-point decline from 2020. Overall CEO credibility, however declined by four percentage points to 44 per cent, charting all-time lows in India, Brazil, Indonesia, Argentina, Russia, France and Japan. Businesses, according to the survey, were expected by the public to fill the void left by the government, with 68 per cent of those surveyed agreeing that CEOs should step in when the government does not fix societal problems. Sixty-five per cent believe that CEOs should hold themselves accountable to the public, and not just to their shareholders or boards. 

Canadians’ trust in government declined over the course of the pandemic: While Canadians recorded a leap in trust in their elected leaders in the first few months of the pandemic (a 20 percentage-point jump), that quickly changed in the latter half of the year. The survey showed a 11 percentage-point decline in trust levels in government between May 2020 and January 2021, the fifth-largest decline by nation, just after South Korea, China, Mexico and the United Kingdom. Overall, Canadians remained neutral when it came to overall trust in government, media, business and NGOs, neither trusting or distrusting those entities, according to the survey. Notably, 58 per cent of Canadians felt that the pandemic had deepened inequalities around the world, unfairly burdening those with less education and money. 

The largest economies have the biggest trust issues: China recorded the biggest erosion in trust in institutions—a 10 percentage-point drop from 2020.The story was similar in the U.S., where trust levels dropped five per cent in the month after the U.S. presidential election. People in Russia continued to have the lowest level of trust in their institutions, at just 31 per cent. Only 45 per cent of U.K. citizens expressed trust in their institutions, though that was a slight increase from the year prior. 

Biden versus Trump: In the U.S., trust among Trump voters in government and the media plunged by 16 percentage points and 15 percentage points, respectively, after the 2020 presidential elections. Biden voters were far more trusting of the media than Trump voters (at 57 per cent versus 18 per cent), but their trust in the media did drop slightly by three percentage points in the aftermath of the elections. 

But some governments fared better than others in terms of public perception: Trust levels improved by more than five percentage points in Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Malaysia and the Netherlands, with Australia recording a 12 percentage-point surge in trust, attributed largely to the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Pandemic recovery hampered by poor media literacy: Sixty-four per cent of those surveyed globally were willing to take a COVID-19 vaccine within the next year. Of Canadians surveyed, one in three remained hesitant. Among those with “information hygiene”—regularly reading news and information, opposing viewpoints and demonstrating media literacy—that number jumped to 73 per cent in Canada willing to take the vaccine within the next year, with just 59 per cent of those with poor “information hygiene” willing to take a vaccine. 

In the public’s eyes, the media has lost credibility: Trust in all information sources—search engines, traditional media, owned media and social media—plunged during the course of the pandemic across nations, with news organizations in particular seen as biased. Over 60 per cent of respondents said that the media was not doing well at being objective and non-partisan, with 59 per cent believing that journalists were purposely trying to mislead the public and that news organizations were more concerned with supporting an ideology or political position than informing the public.

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Takeaways for CEOs: Employees expect companies to keep workers and customers safe, provide skills training programs, have regular communications with staff and have a diverse, representative workforce. Fifty per cent of those employed are more likely now than a year ago to voice objections to management or engage in workplace protest.