“Often, not until times of crisis do we realize how fragile trust relations are.”
This policy paper focuses on the nexus between trust and mis- and disinformation in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. First, the image of a spiral is used to illustrate selected predictors of distrust at the macro-level of societal institutions (particularly democratic institutions and the media), the meso-level of intergroup relations, and the micro-level of individuals’ generalized distrust towards power, what might be referred to as the conspiracy mentality.
At each level, this paper reviews evidence for the state of (mis-) trust before the pandemic and how declining levels of trust increase vulnerability to mis- and disinformation and/or conspiracy narratives. Building on this framework, the paper then moves on to discuss how COVID-19 has impacted the interplay between trust and polluted information across the three levels and demonstrates how increased distrust has endangered successful pandemic-control and stability. Finally, the paper deduces starting points to prevent the downward spiral of disinformation and foster societal resilience at all three levels.
To promote societal resilience to mis- and disinformation, six key-challenges that need to be addressed are presented:
- Social media architecture and business models constitute a venue of unprecedented power for spreading conspiracy narratives, mis-, and disinformation.
- Polarization, inequality, and misbehavior by political actors and media representatives are associated with declining trust in democratic institutions and the media around the world. Such developments can increase citizens’ likelihood to turn towards alternative news sources and become more vulnerable to mis- and disinformation and conspiracy narratives.
- Ongoing intergroup conflicts and discrimination can lead to intergroup distrust over time, increasing citizens’ susceptibility to ‘polluted’ information. As a result, mis-or disinformation and conspiracy stories can contribute to violence and radicalization processes.
- Basic human cognition and need for a coherent understanding of socio-political developments, subjective certainty, and a positive image of oneself and ones ingroup make people susceptible to conspiracy stories.
- Mis- and disinformation and particularly conspiracy stories often attribute blame to democratic institutions and outgroups for existing problems in a society, fueling even more distrust among the public, and thus contributing to a downward spiral of distrust and deception.
- The COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced existing distrust and led to a global flood of mis- and disinformation and conspiracy stories that are likely to accelerate the downward spiral of distrust.
Thus, there is a need to promote a multi-sector effort that involves the government, civil society, the media, and the policy and science communities, and which addresses the information disorder in a coordinated fashion at three levels: Democratic institutions, Intergroup level and Individual level.
Table of contents
2.1 Defining Trust
2.2 Trust and the COVID-19 Crisis
03 Methodology and Questions
04 The Spiral of Distrust
4.1 Trust at the Societal Level: Democratic Institutions and News Media
4.2 Trust at the Intergroup Level: Intergroup Conflicts
4.3 Trust at the Level of the Individual: Distrust and Conspiracy Beliefs
4.4 Interim Summary: The Multi-Level Nexus of Trust and Dis- and Misinformation
05 Trust and Disinformation during the COVID-19 Pandemic
5.1 The Level of Societal Institutions
5.2 The Intergroup Level
5.3 The Individual Level
5.4 Interim Summary: COVID-19 Added “Fuel to the Fire”
06 Preventing the Downward Spiral of Distrust
6.1 Countering Inequality, Polarization, Distrust, and Disinformation
6.2 Addressing Intergroup Conflicts and Enabling Positive Intergroup Contact
6.3 Empowering Citizens and Providing Certainty and Value
07 Concluding Remarks