Web Summit – Building Real Trust in the Age of Disinformation

November 7, 2018

Share

As day two of Web Summit draws to a close, we’ve heard a tremendous amount of conversation and debate about fake news – as Sophie Scott wrote about yesterday.

Today our CEO & President John Saunders took part in this debate, joining a fascinating panel with Margot James, UK Minister of State for Digital and the Creative Industries; Ann Mettler, Head, European Political Strategy Centre, European Commission; and Hadas Gold, Reporter, Media and Business, CNN.

The discussion, as well as the news cycle this morning around the US mid-term elections across the board, got me thinking about the dual challenge institutions face today. They need to defend themselves against political, legal and cultural attacks, while at the same time rebuilding trust amongst the public. They need to be defensive and proactive at the same time. And their solutions need to address all at once a polarized political environment, the influence of business and government outside of national levels, and the unprecedented opportunity to mobilize specific population segments.

From L-R: Margot James, John Saunders, Ann Mettler, Hadas Gold

As we’ve counseled clients in a variety of countries on how to respond to this complex challenge, the following areas of focus have come to the fore.

Engage Young People

Part of the solution must involve engaging and mobilizing young people. This was something that came across in the panel debate John participated in today.

The younger population are more supportive of multilateral approaches to problems, and they’re also more likely to differentiate between facts and ‘fake news’.  According to the Pew Research Center, for example, younger Europeans are more left-leaning than older voters, but they don’t hold positive views of traditional centre-left parties. As a result, they may not associate with the organizations that traditionally defend multilateral institutions, even though they themselves are significantly more likely to support those institutions.

Young people also need to play a central role in the fight against fake news. When another Pew Research Center study evaluated whether Americans could distinguish between statements of fact and opinions, 32 percent of 18- to 49-year-olds correctly identified the factual statements as factual, versus 20 percent of 50-plus respondents. And 44 percent of 18- to 49-year-olds identified the opinion statements as opinions, compared with 26 percent of those 50-plus.

Use the Process of Reform to Restore Trust

Supporters of multilateralism need to use the reform process to create stronger institutions and help rebuild public trust. Simply put, the institutions don’t just need to be better, they need to recreate themselves in a more inclusive way.

UN Secretary General António Guterres has called for reforms that will refocus the UN on its core mission of preventing conflict. Similarly, EU leaders have engaged in an ongoing dialogue about how to make European institutions more effective.

But in an environment of distrust, these discussions often revert to opaque debates about rules and systems. This reinforces the public’s sense of detachment, particularly among those who feel that those rules and systems are biased against them. The reform process should therefore be far more transparent and open, with wide-ranging involvement from the public.

Leverage the Power of Communications

Populist movements have harnessed the power of social media to mobilize large numbers of passionate supporters. Defenders of multilateralism and international institutions have tended to rely upon traditional media outlets alone, and don’t always leverage the full power of digital and social communications to inform, motivate and activate supporters. Simultaneously, and as Ann Mettler so pointed out today, media is – and has to be – the backbone of democracy.

If international institutions want to rebuild trust, communications must play a central role in several ways:

  • First, supporters of multilateralism, rules-based trade, and shared standards on human rights need more clearly defined spaces – especially on the internet – where they can convene and collaborate.
  • Second, they should evolve a narrative that shows how shared values lead to shared positive outcomes. Populist movements are often powered by messaging about the threats to values, reinforced with tangible examples related to economic security, immigration, terrorism and other issues. In the face of all that, defenders of multilateralism too often talk only about intangible values that don’t acknowledge and address the fears or needs of their skeptics. This clearly needs to change.
  • Third, international institutions need to broaden their base of support to better include people in emerging markets.

Leaders in the BRICS countries and many other emerging markets have committed multilateral arrangements. Their support can be rallied in order to establish stronger global support for institutions that are currently under attack.