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Trust starts with truth

This op-ed was first published in The Telegraph on April 5, 2017, in conjunction with Omidyar Network’s announcement to commit $100M to address the global trust deficit.

By Stephen King, Partner at Omidyar Network

Who do we believe? On what evidence do we base our biggest decisions? How do we hold those with power and influence to account for what they say and do?

In recent years I’ve become increasingly concerned with the lack of accuracy and responsibility in government communications and the media, in particular the impact of misinformation on public trust. I’ve seen first hand, from China to Cameroon, how state propaganda, a restricted press and the widespread dissemination of false information can harm people — often the most vulnerable and marginalised in society.

These issues used to be written off as belonging to ‘developing’ nations or those under totalitarian rule. But we’re now seeing the rise of deeply concerning ‘post-truth’ issues in democratic countries that should shake any complacency we have about our own situation.

This matters because misinformation and lack of access to independent sources of information weaken the bond between the public, government and media. A recent survey in the UK by social research agency NatCen found that only 18% of respondents trust newspapers, and just 26% trust government to present official statistics honestly. The 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer reports that British people now trust their family and friends four times more than they do political parties and leaders. This is hardly surprising given the disinformation and selective reporting we saw during the EU referendum — from all sides.

Misinformation isn’t new but, with social media echo chambers amplifying prejudice and many people feeling ever more politically isolated, it’s having a greater impact on how we live together as a society. There are consequences when political leaders pass off lies as truth. There are consequences when people create and share baseless claims and hate speech. Misinformation erodes trust, and declining trust weakens democracy, breeds suspicion and risks opening the door to authoritarian government.

I believe we’re in danger of letting powerful new communications tools, and a lack of accountability for what we say, run ahead of reasoned, fact-driven public discussion. We must act now to ensure ‘alternative facts’ and hate speech don’t become accepted as normal. We must renew our enthusiasm for the thoughtful and open exchange of views. And we must find new ways to help civic life flourish in our communities, rather than let distrust push us apart.

The stakes are high, which is why the Omidyar Network — the philanthropic investment firm established by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar — is committing $100 million to support intiatives in this area. We’re setting out to strengthen independent media and investigative journalism, and tackle misinformation and hate speech. We’re also supporting more responsive government, and we’re empowering people to have a voice and hold politicians to account.

This increased commitment builds on the $220 million we’ve invested over the last decade to support greater accountability and transparency of government. We’re now making new investments in media organisations and platforms that are independent, fact-driven and non-partisan. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) — the group behind the Panama Papers offshore finance investigation — is one of the first recipients. With our support, we hope the ICIJ can shine an even brighter light on the dark corners where power is misused, corruption facilitated and trust eroded.

The ICIJ team. Photo: Matthias Döring / Süddeutsche Zeitung

Along with independent media, we’ll also support organisations developing civic technology tools to help government better engage with the public — and vice versa. Great community-focused tech can change lives. In Rio de Janeiro, for example, many people go missing each year but there’s been no centralised approach to finding them. Relatives had to search each police station, shelter and morgue. A citizen-led organisation we support — Meu Rio — used communications technology to campaign for a missing persons police unit. They succeeded. In 2016, the police station for missing persons succeeded in 80% of the cases (2625 people were reported missing, 2089 were found).

Hate speech is perhaps the most complex issue we’re addressing. For me, it’s vital that we promote tolerance, inclusivity and debate — without limiting free speech. Facts plays a vital role in challenging prejudice, so we’ll be supporting organisations such as independent fact-checking charity Full Fact.

More trusted information; a powerful approach to countering hate speech and fake news; and much closer connections between government and people — three ways in which we are working to help democracy and society meet the misinformation challenge. We’re aware this complex issue won’t be solved by $100 million alone. But it’s a big step in the right direction and we’re hoping it will inspire others to take action. Politicians, social media organisations, entrepreneurs, investors, active citizens — together we can find smart ways to bring people together.

First and foremost, our response must be founded on the belief that truth exists, that it’s precious, and that it’s best protected through robust reporting and well-informed debate. For me, that’s the starting point for trust, democracy and a thriving society.

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Omidyar Network

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Omidyar Network is a social change venture that reimagines critical systems, and the ideas that govern them, to build more inclusive and equitable societies.