SNAPSHOT: Declining public trust levels will elevate social tensions, continue to impede business confidence
- Falling trust in national governments across the world has become a key feature of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
- The declining credibility in governments and senior officials will continue to harm business confidence, which will be crucial as countries seek to revive their economies amid a looming recession.
- Against this backdrop, disinformation campaigns, fake news, and conspiracy theories have gained unprecedented traction.
- According to a recent study by market research firm Kantar, government approval levels have dropped across the Group of Seven (G7) countries, with just 48 per cent of respondents approving their government’s response to COVID-19. Compared to a similar study conducted in April, the UK saw the largest decrease – 18 points from 69 per cent to 51 per cent – in public approval over its response to the crisis. Germany and France saw approval ratings drop by 2 percentage points. Japan was the only exception, seeing approval increasing by 7 points from April.
- In what is perhaps a strong indication of the prolonged impact of COVID-19 on the hospitality industry, the study also found that 40 per cent of people surveyed said they would visit restaurants and cafes less frequently than before, even once this type of activity becomes safer.
- Assessing the UK’s strategy towards dealing with the crisis is key to understanding the sudden drop in trust levels. Before sharply changing approach and introducing a lockdown, senior officials had supported a policy of ‘herd immunity’ and abandoned mass testing. An inconsistent strategy combined with mixed messaging, diverging approaches among the UK’s constituent nations, and revelations that a senior government advisor violated lockdown rules has fuelled further distrust.
- This was in stark contrast with policies adopted in South Korea and Germany, both widely seen as positive examples. Ultimately, factors that determined the success of COVID-19 lockdowns were timeliness, transparency, effective public awareness campaigns, and consistent government messaging. This has helped ensure high levels of trust and public compliance with restrictions.
- Indeed, trust is a crucial driving force when it comes to influencing public behaviour in liberal societies. In more autocratic systems, this is usually achieved through stricter social controls.
- The extent to which trust has declined is partly the cause and consequence of elaborate disinformation campaigns. While groups responsible may have diverging agendas, these campaigns have been largely aimed at sowing social, national, and geopolitical tensions. For example, a ‘complex disinformation operation’ designed to weaken US-Poland ties was identified in Poland, while a fake story relating to NATO’s presence in Lithuania was also widely-shared at the start of the country’s outbreak.
- The proliferation of conspiracy theories linking 5G to the virus also illustrates the clear costs of disinformation. According to industry groups ETNO and GSMA, over 140 arson attacks targeting mobile telecommunications masts have taken place in 10 European states since the start of the pandemic. This included 87 incidents in the UK and 30 in the Netherlands. There have also been reports of maintenance workers being assaulted.
- The current context may also help explain why police officers – symbols of official authority – were attacked during unusually violent anti-racism protests in London on 7 June.
- Growing distrust towards the authorities will also inform how strongly official guidelines will be adopted by organisations, creating scope for inconsistencies in implementation.
- A dent in public trust will complicate efforts to successfully lift lockdowns as well as effectively respond to future pandemics. This is especially relevant when considering contact-tracing apps, currently being rolled out in different countries and seen as a complementary tool enhancing early warning mechanisms. Usage will determine their effectiveness and this will be impacted by whether or not the wider population trusts that personal data will be safeguarded.
- The erosion of public trust will have profound medium- and longer-term implications. For economic activity to return to pre-COVID-19 levels, states will need to convince citizens not just that the current outbreak is under control but that appropriate measures have been taken to cope with a new surge in infections or a potential second wave later this year.
- In any case, public trust is unlikely to return to pre-crisis levels anytime soon. This may worsen further depending on how governments perform during crises of similar proportions in the future.
- Even once COVID-19 subsides, low trust levels will likely be part of the pandemic’s enduring legacy. More distrust towards authorities will create opportunities for malign actors to ramp up disinformation campaigns aimed at fuelling social and national divisions.
- Attacks targeting telecommunications infrastructure will likely continue as conspiracy theories continue to resonate with wider audiences. There will also be a high likelihood of widespread social unrest amid heightened collective insecurity and unprecedented economic uncertainty.
- In the aftermath of the crisis, national and international enquiries will likely illustrate the importance of non-contradictory messaging that is both informative and actionable. For governments, regaining public trust will rest on their ability to strike a good balance between following scientific advice and strong leadership.