Trust in Government During The Digital Age: The Media Impact

If you opened today’s newspaper, visited the front page of an online news site, or turned on the TV, the global media trends that are dominating the conversation are:

1) Social media enables unconventional political campaigns, giving strength to right-wing Populist movements.

2) The traditional media conglomerates are collapsing.

3) This new media era is prompting a dilution of trust in government institutions.

While there may be some truth to these trends, the purpose of this article is to move past the toxic media perceptions that these trends promote, and argue the contrary. Digital and social media are the best opportunities for governments to connect with the people, and establish trust in the modern era.

The emphasis for discussion is focused on countries with free movement of media, yet the guidelines are also applicable to non-democratic governments. Governments that are not democratic still need the consent of the people to maintain social cohesion, and they may use social media as a tool, not a weapon, to make the people feel heard.

Francis Fukuyama, American political scientist wrote in his esteemed book, “Trust: Social Virtues and Creation of Prosperity,” that “Information is power, and those at the top of the traditional hierarchies maintained their dominance by controlling access to information. Modern communication technologies have broken this stranglehold on information.” We are living in an age where information for the majority of the world is democratized, no longer a top to bottom approach, but spread to the masses quickly. While many claim the nature of social media to be damaging and complicated, the use of modern technology between the government and the people can ignite needed dialogue, engage the disengaged and establish trust between the people and institutions.

BUSINESS OF MEDIA

According to the 2016 Edelman Trust Barometer, the media ranked lowest (least trusted) among the global population, across 28 countries, compared to governments, NGO’s and businesses. The average American consumes traditional and digital media nearly 15 and a half hours a day on average. Given the immense time consumed, this growing distrust of the media correlates to the way we see the world, spilling into distrust of government. Government ranked second of least trusted institutions following the media, among the four.

The media has evolved into a catchall phrase during the Digital Age, wherein trust or distrust has been relegated to a generalization. With an abundance of data at our fingertips, it’s difficult to not generalize, and we are accustomed to doing so. A comprehensive trust or distrust in the media is more complicated. There are innumerable media outlets throughout the globe, some more accurate than others, and while it may be intimidating to break down the purpose for each media platform, we should recognize the differences that exist within the media.

In the Digital Age, the modern consumer is inundated with content. While the incentives of certain media organizations may not have changed (headline making, profit generation, information sharing, etc.), the sheer pace of media has transformed this current era. Every single person is capable of creating and sharing content, quickly, in seconds. Differentiating between fake and real news is increasingly challenging. The battle against fake news is nothing new though. The speed in which fake news can be spread through so-called “echo chambers” is the real concern. There are thousands, if not millions of sources the average person has access to for a particular topic thanks to the 3G / 4G networks.

The current nature of the media we consume every day, is simply, we are distracted by the many streams that define this era. The average attention span of a human has dropped to 8 seconds, shorter than a goldfish. Before we cast the blame onto media conglomerates for partisan headlines, “news making” stories (the very behavior many state as the reason for distrust), we must also consider a personal retrospection as a media consumer. We, the audience, are changing and the media is giving us what we want…. stories to inform us, entertain us, make us feel. There are enough platforms that we can tune into what we like most, while avoiding those topics or outlets that may not necessarily benefit or spark our interest. Much of modern media is reactive. The after coverage effect causes a bombardment of varying media outlets covering the same topic, so the audience is skeptical about what to believe and stuck in habit about what outlet they ought to read from.

The “established” traditional media outlets who gained legitimacy via television, radio and print are financially losing revenues, adapting to the Digital Age, where one can access information for free. Therefore, budget adjustments across many of these companies have been made, including salary cuts and layoffs for journalists, who have dedicated their lives to quality reporting. The business of the media is being so thoroughly transformed, as conglomerates tighten budgets, referring to crowdsourcing from the whims of social media, which we should welcome. Despite the transformation, there is NO dearth of quality journalism and unbiased media coverage, where reporters are on the frontlines dedicated to fact based sharing. Technology has simply allowed us to filter out certain information, continuing to show us what we want to see as opposed to what we should. The media has a responsibility to keep leaders accountable and honest, but we too, as consumers have a responsibility to absorb all perspectives, even if they are different or controversial from our own. During an age when information sharing is at its highest, we are capable of limiting the information provided based on our own preferences. Acknowledging our own cognitive biases is a step towards minimizing them.

“During an age when information sharing is at its highest, we are capable of limiting the information provided based on our own preferences. Acknowledging our own cognitive biases is a step towards minimizing them.”

Based on the 33,000+ respondents from the Edelman survey, global trust had a direct correlation between the informed public (college educated, 15% of global population) and mass population (all excluding informed public, 85% of global population). The more informed, the higher ratings for trust in institutions, whereas the mass population is more distrustful of governments and corporations. There are certainly outliers to this data, but the correlation is duly recognized. Without trust from the mass public, governments are unable to achieve success in policies that depend on the citizens.

We are living in the Facebook, Instagram, Twitter generation, where two-way engagement and active involvement from all parties, stakeholders are drivers for institutional success. Traditional media is becoming increasingly distrusted because the former model is simply broadcasting one’s message for others to hear. Establishing trust in the modern era is a two-way dynamic for all parties involved. The most trusted groups are “people like us,” peers, family and friends. We are able to relate, to have a two-sided conversation oftentimes. Social media platforms allow us to be connected better than ever in order to communicate. One would think this opportunity would heighten conversations between the government and civil society to gain trust. However, despite “two-way engagement” being a buzz term, very few government institutions and political leaders are effectively doing it, giving strength to the Populist movement. Dissatisfaction has driven global political movements, and the surprises have shocked governments to recognize how necessary it is to truly listen to the masses.

GOVERNMENT AND CIVIL SOCIETY PARTICIPATION

Involvement, knowledge exchange and empathy establish trust. As Public Communications Expert, Jim Macnamara pointed out, “The popularity of social media demonstrates human expectations and demands for interactivity and for others to have a voice — not only elites in government and business, journalists, and other privileged political actors.” The average citizen does not want to simply be broadcasted to; they want to be a part of the decision. While many government leaders claim to be “listening,” oftentimes their focus is selective about what may drive their agenda, or the “voices” they may hear are from the loudest or best organized groups. The fundamentals of corporate communications and public relations, which are used in the business and government worlds are to hone in on targeting audiences, craft messages to capture attention, produce content and achieve the organization’s goals and objectives. Rarely do these teachings mention listening as part of institutional communications, but now is the time to shift these strategies, in order to create a culture of trust among government institutions and the people. Communication is not just speaking and creating one’s own message. Communication involves listening from others in order to create that message. To further highlight Macnamara, “Institutionalized political communication, through political parties and organized political events similarly needs to be broadened to engage with the wider electorate. Current practices such as tours, visits, and rallies that are typically attended by “the party faithful”, who are organized as “cheer squads”, and selectively arranged meetings with voters mean that politicians are often not listening to ‘real people’. Through highly staged events and meetings with ‘representatives’ they are mostly hearing the loud voices of power elites and the platitudes of sycophants, shallowly supplemented by small sample (and often misleading) polls. Thus, many political representatives and leaders gain a narrow and sterilized version of citizens’ views.”

On the other side of the spectrum, political conversations on social media can be hijacked by trolls, preventing political and government leaders’ willingness to engage with the wider public. Trolling disillusions government, business and industry leaders from casting their nets to the opinions of the wider public.

In generations past, civil society has been subjected to the role of spectators in politics as opposed to participants. The Digital Age of Media has introduced opportunities for the people to actively be involved. As we become more connected, the issue of trust in our relationships whether it be peer to peer, or individual to institution is important. The world seems a little smaller because of technology and modern communication.

VOTING INVOLVEMENT

In the Digital Age, people demand inclusivity and involvement, yet voter turnouts continue to drop in many countries throughout the world.

Just 28.5% of eligible American voters participated in the primary elections to choose the Republican and Democratic candidates for President of the United States. Then, approximately 58% of estimated voters participated in the November 2016 General elections to select President Trump. An astounding 72% of eligible British voters participated in the European Union Referendum, yet 66% participated in the 2015 General election and approximately 30% participated in local elections two months before the referendum vote. The UK government officials who drove the Remain and Leave campaigns were elected by less than 50% of the eligible voting population.

Modern, distrustful voters claim politicians and government officials are disconnected with the realities of their personal lives within their region, yet their participation to elect “people like us,” — intermediaries to big government departments from their towns, local and district officials, Members of Parliament, Congressmen and women is minimal. Distrust in government is heightened by detachment. Social media gives people the opportunity to engage with not only the most high-profile government leaders, but also the political intermediaries who can understand on a grassroots level the people’s needs and wants. It is vital for a government at all levels to engage in outreach that reminds their citizens of this communication accessibility.

Declining civic engagement is a concern for policy makers. A study in behavioral economics indicates that time, not cost, is the predominant justification for people’s disengagement with government and voting, primarily in industrialized countries. However, social media can be used as a trigger to engage the disengaged through institutionalized and informal channels.

CULTURE AND TRANSPARENCY

Despite varying voting methodologies and cultural tendencies to be more trusting or less, the focus for two-way engagement between the government and civil society is the best means to establish trust in the Digital Age. Francis Fukuyama noted, “One of the most important lessons we can learn from an examination of economic life is that a nation’s well-being, as well as its ability to compete, is conditioned by a single, pervasive cultural characteristic: the level of trust inherent in the society.”

Of the 28 countries in the Edelman Trust Barometer, the United Arab Emirates ranked #1 in 2016, with 80% of the General Population stating their trust in the government. This is compared to the US with 39% trust and the UK 36% trust in government from their respective general populations. The difference lies in the UAE’s commitment to communicate transparently via the Dubai Plan 2021. The UAE People have access to the strategic developmental aims for Dubai, where HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai resides. Through a simple Key Performance Indicator (KPI), government efficiency is measured based on people’s happiness and satisfaction with government services. With the use of technology and data, the UAE government has navigated communication directly with the people, and they aim to continue to improve with this focused plan.

Transparency is only the first step towards two-way engagement. Openness must follow, as transparency only allows full disclosure into a current plan. It is sharing one’s message honestly and clearly for others to hear, read, and learn. Not only should government be transparent, but also they must be willing to engage in a dialogue that connects the people with the government.

THE FUTURE

Government leaders and politicians must approach digital media in a different way than they have for former 21st century media models. Simply reusing media strategies for radio, television and print and shortening them down for digital platforms won’t work. Attitudes must change about how effective social media can be to communicate with all people in a two-way dialogue. The benefits far outweigh the costs, and governments have a true chance to show their initial intent for involvement is not merely the power that comes with it, but the positive ability to activate change for improvement within societies.

How will we continue to adjust to the pace and verity of media in the 5G network, which is sure to be the next wave of communication? The speed of media is only going to get faster. Governments must grapple with the pros of digital media to promote a meaningful connection with the public. Instead of the UK government approach, “digital by default,” playing catch up with the waves of technology, they must consider what may be the future of productive communication with the people. Perhaps it is using Artificial Intelligence (AI) to speed up reading comments or complaints.

“Winning the narrative is the key to politics,” Adrian Kendry, an esteemed NATO, international diplomat once told me. In the Digital Age, governments must be mindful of how to win the narrative over the millions who engage with social media daily.

Abraham Lincoln captured the masses with his speeches spread through the printing press and telegraph. Winston Churchill’s strong words gravitated throughout the radio waves. John F. Kennedy became an icon as he engaged the public through television. Now, government leaders can rely on social media as a force for good. Media innovation is nothing new, and in this day and age, government leaders have a great opportunity to amplify this narrative and actively involve the people through social media.

The benefits are immense. Equally important to telling the narrative is truly listening to the people, not just saying you are. Author Stephen R. Covey rightly pointed out that “most people do not listen to understand; they listen with the intent to reply. They’re either speaking or preparing to speak.” Social media has changed the way we communicate. Instead of blaming it for the problems that exist in our governments today, let’s highlight its effectiveness making us all more informed and involved in issues that impact each and every one of us.

Special thanks to the UAE Government Prime Minister’s Office, Derek Wyatt, Founder of the Oxford Internet Institute, Former British Member of Parliament, and Adrian Kendry, NATO Senior Defense Economist, Former Advisor to Secretary General for contribution to this thoughtpiece.

Justine Gamez is an Award Winning International Media Publicist, having worked with hundreds of journalists throughout the globe. She is also a Humanitarian dedicated to social issues in her family’s home country of the Philippines. Justine is a graduate of the University of Oxford for her MBA, and University of Notre Dame for her Marketing Bachelor’s degree. The UAE Government invited her to be a delegate for the World Government Summit in Dubai, and she is a member of the Global Diplomatic Forum, representing American and Philippine interests. Most recently, she was nominated for the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office sponsored Women of the Future Awards, celebrating Britain’s future pipeline of influential leaders. Justine is currently a Strategy and Communications Consultant based in London.

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