Trust, communication clarity, balanced news and tech heretics

Yet again, the Three SDF Podcasteers Neville Hobson, Sam Knowles and Thomas Stoeckle tackle a range of related themes, from trust in society to clarity in corporate messages, global attitudes towards news, and Silicon Valley’s growing number of critical voices.

The 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer finds China and the US poles apart, with the US in last place, experiencing its largest drop in the survey’s history, and China on top with the strongest gains among all 28 surveyed countries.

Now in its 18th year, the Barometer makes for an excellent chronicle of perceptions of trust around the world – and a time series that warrants more deep dive analyses, to glean insights, learn, and perhaps to lead to better informed decision-making.

Sam points to the fact that the top five most trusting societies presently are China, Indonesia, India, UAE and Singapore. Followed by the Netherlands, the first liberal western democracy on the list. In line with other societal trends (political opinions, values), trust is becoming more polarised.

We need to be clear what we talk about when we talk about trust. Baroness Onora O’Neill, eminent philosopher on trust, explained this in her 2013 TED talk (with more than 1.5m views to date): trust needs to be seen in context; requires an informed, intelligent assessment of trustworthiness. To earn trust, organisations (and individuals) need to be seen as competent, honest and reliable. This requires intelligible, trustworthy information from trustworthy sources. 

Rachel Botsman‘s work on collaboration and trust (her 2012 TED talk on trust has been viewed 1.3m times) has some good pointers for how technological change and human development can be better aligned.  Accountability is a key theme. It is no surprise that Chris Hayes’s Twilight of the Elites features on her list of recommended reads.

The evidence from the Edelman Trust Barometer also points to a heterogeneous, multifaceted picture, with different contexts. However, there are some positive general trends: trust in experts is returning (which might surprise the Brexit-backing Mr Gove), as is trust in professional journalism.

Trust in business and in business leaders is going up, and this marks an opportunity to take the lead on topics people care about: almost two thirds of respondents said they no longer know how to tell good journalism from bad (or fake). Communicators must provide guidance, with clarity and factual accuracy.

clarity

Sam’s company Insight Agents analysed the clarity of corporate content of the UK’s leading FTSE50 businesses, and found a lot of room for improvement. The recommendation: less jargon, more human stories, and don’t write by committee. By the way: communications giant WPP came a surprisingly low 29th in the rankings.

Neville found little surprise when reviewing the Pew Research Center’s global news study: people want balanced news, but often they distrust their local media. Views are most polarised in the U.S., which is borne out by a recent  Oxford Internet Institute study on the production and distribution of junk news. The study provides more evidence that the right, populist end of the political spectrum is more active and engaged with fake (or junk) news.

When it comes to addressing  and solving the problem, recent research – not least by the Society for New Communications Research of the Conference Board shows that marketers expect publishers, media companies and social media platforms to take the lead.

The world

The challenges are manifold, and some of them have been written into the programmes and processes of the leading social media firms. The Guardian’s story about the YouTube’s recommendation algorithms is a case in point. Whistleblowers such as Guillaume Chaslot (an ex YouTube engineer who conducted the data analytics behind the Guardian story) are helping to increase transparency.

There is a growing band of Silicon Valley heretics who are pushing for a more ethical approach to technology development. One of its leaders is Tristan Harris, former design ethicist and product philosopher at Google (his 2017 TED talk on the ‘mindhacking’ of tech companies is approaching 2m views).

Together with other industry leaders, including Roger McNamee, Robert Lustig, Nir Eyal and others, he as founded the Center for Humane Technology, dedicated to  studying the individual and societal effects of technology. Together with Common Sense Media, they are launching the Truth About Tech Campaign, highlighting a growing addiction problem related to social media and smart device use.

Social media

On addiction and behaviour (change), our resident behavioural psychologist Sam talks about reward pathways and attentional pathway, dopaminergic reactions, and how social media use is related to other cravings – for sex, for chocolate, for drugs, etc. In the work of Dr Robert Lustig, this all goes back to an unhealthy, media induced preference for pleasure over happiness.

As it happens, all three of us are ex smokers, and Neville points out that  behaviour change takes time. That reminds me how much successful influence and persuasion activities are related to appeals to the lower part of our brain stem. That remains the not very secret secret of social engineering: cue Edward Bernays and his 1929 Torches of Freedom campaign…

It is no coincidence that Tristan Harris, together with many other Silicon Valley luminaries (including Instagram co-founder Mike Krieger) is a student of behavioural psychologist BJ Fogg, founder and director of the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab) – something we will be discussing in more detail in our next episode.

Listen to episode 16:

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