Who can you trust?
COVID-19 pandemic further fractures the social contract
Particularly in difficult and uncertain times, people want a leader they can trust—trust to tell them the truth, to act in their best interests, to rely on advice from the best experts. At the start of the covid-19 pandemic, leaders in many countries enjoyed levels of support usually seen only in wartimes and there was widespread compliance with lockdown restrictions. The language around “fighting” the pandemic reinforced the wartime analogy—we are all in it together, united against an invisible foe.
But months later, that support has plummeted and divisions have appeared. Some leaders have not only failed to tell the truth, they have provided misinformation on covid-19. They have been accused of ignoring or misrepresenting the impact of the pandemic for their own political advantage. And they have not only failed to accept the advice of top scientists, they have actively undermined those experts. People are left wondering what to believe and who to trust.
Mind the gap
In this information gap, different players—from conspiracy theorists to scammers to state-backed operations—are vying for the hearts and minds of the people. These players target people with social media content cleverly designed to play on their fears and make them more receptive to misinformation.
It’s working. Sites promoting inaccurate information and conspiracy theories about health have received almost four times as many views on Facebook as the top 10 reputable health information sites. This is despite Facebook’s fact-checkers putting warning labels on 98m pieces of COVID-19 misinformation and removing 7m posts that could lead to imminent harm (from April to June), and redirecting people who share links about COVID-19 to the website of the World Health Organization (WHO).
COVID-19 misinformation sites build on and use the tactics honed by the anti-vaccine movement. A new report by the Centre for Countering Digital Hate found there are 38.7m followers of anti-vaccine accounts on social media (which could earn those social media platforms $1bn in advertising revenue annually). And they have had an impact—anti-vaccine sentiment has been recognised as contributing to record numbers of measles cases in the US and Europe in 2019.
Although dedicated anti-vaxxers are a small percentage of the population, their numbers matter as they are an indicator of wider political beliefs. A study of 28 European countries found a correlation between high electoral support for populist parties in countries that also have high levels of vaccine scepticism. The result of that is evident where there have been crises of political trust, as in Greece, Albania and Czech Republic, and also a loss of measles-free status.
As most of the world waits hopefully for a covid-19 vaccine, some people are not convinced it will be safe or effective. One in five Britons claim they will refuse to get a vaccine, while about half (49%) of Americans have expressed doubts. These resistors matter because without them, herd immunity cannot be achieved and the virus cannot be eradicated. This is why the WHO warned in February that “we are fighting a war on two fronts—a pandemic and an infodemic”.
Again, anti-vaccine sentiment has political implications. A recent poll found more Americans (69%) say they do not trust President Trump to vouch for the effectiveness of a vaccine than have concerns about the vaccine itself. That distrust seems well-earned. Researchers at Cornell University analysed 38m articles about the pandemic, and President Trump accounted for 38% of the overall “misinformation conversation”, making him the largest driver of the infodemic.
The future of truth
COVID-19 turned the US election into a referendum on President Trump’s handling of the pandemic and his role in the infodemic to some voters; for others, their trust in him was a repudiation of “the experts”. However they get to a position of distrust, plenty of citizens no longer seem willing to accept paternalistic guidance from their leaders, at least in the West.
As European countries lockdown to manage a second wave of COVID-19, the willingness of people to follow the rules has huge ramifications. Many leaders now face an uphill battle to regain public trust and prove they are not part of the problem. This will be especially tricky where leaders who put themselves in opposition to the experts now must convince the public to adhere to restrictions recommended by those experts.
“The relationship between politicians and experts became a key ideological divide in the Brexit debate in 2016. Four years later, the relationship has become more complicated, with governments relying on expert input to varying degrees to justify the unprecedented restrictions placed on individual choice and human rights in the fight against the pandemic,” says Katy Colton, head of the politics and law group at Mishcon de Reya. “As citizens grow ever more reluctant to comply with the restrictions, it is becoming even more essential that politicians act transparently and truthfully. Any failure to do so has the potential to undermine the rule of law, and indeed, put citizens’ lives at risk.”