ON ANY GIVEN MORNING IN 2019, you could watch the news and read the polls and conclude that democracy was not designed to survive Facebook. Or Twitter, or WhatsApp, or any of the other channels through which information flows and toxins thrive. Disinformation is nothing new: Lies as tools, lies as weapons, have always challenged a system that depends for success on a certain amount of public trust. But the ease of creating and the speed of spreading bad information outpace our efforts to correct it, which can feel like using tweezers to clean up after a sandstorm. Journalists wrestle with the risk that fact-checking will disperse nonsense rather than dispel it. Policymakers and technologists square off over rights and responsibilities, even as governments across the world debate where to put the guardrails around our privacy. But institutions are at a disadvantage trying to manage new technologies when people in so many countries don’t trust them to do what’s right. Even the trust individuals have in one another has suffered through this period of category 5 disruption.
The twin crises of truth and trust are inseparable, making all the challenges of public policy that much more difficult to address. A Pew Research Center study found that two-thirds of Americans think that other Americans have little or no trust in the federal government; a majority believe that trust in individuals as well as institutions is shrinking, and that this will make it harder to solve the nation’s problems. An insidious process is at work here: The very awareness of distrust and growing cynicism about government’s ability to promote progress leads to disengagement. The more people turn away from a common public sphere to their own curated information streams, the greater the likelihood of political conflict, division, and misunderstanding.
“In its global annual survey, the 'informed public'—college-educated, with incomes in the top quartile—reported general trust in institutions that was 16 points higher than that of the 'mass public.' Trust becomes one more luxury good.”
The trust crisis flows downstream from larger challenges around inequality. We know that the gap between rich and poor has widened in health, life expectancy, and education, so maybe it’s not surprising that the Edelman Trust Barometer registered a widening of the “trust gap” in 2019. In its global annual survey, the “informed public”—college-educated, with incomes in the top quartile—reported general trust in institutions that was 16 points higher than that of the “mass public.” Trust becomes one more luxury good, allowing some citizens to engage in public debate with greater confidence and conviction than others.
I should confess my own bias, as a 30-year veteran of mainstream “legacy” media and its journey through this same polluted and polarized landscape. While never perfect and sometimes arrogant, journalists have tried to operate in a common space of authoritative information where debates over the impact of tariffs or the safety of vaccines or the effects of fossil fuels are anchored in research and evidence. As newsrooms shrink, and attention shifts to other platforms, the mission of journalists to inform citizens and hold leaders accountable for solving ever-more complex problems becomes increasingly difficult.
That is why our work at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy is broad, interdisciplinary, and focused on the informational foundations of democracy. We have to promote “good” information and, at the same time, combat “bad” information to rebuild faith in a common purpose and promote the common good. Through Journalist’s Resource—a site that curates and summarizes research related to news topics—and our fellowships, panels, and publications, we give journalists and policymakers access to the best research to deepen their understanding of confounding issues. And through research in disinformation and media manipulation, we dissect the ways bad actors use new techniques to damage public discourse and disrupt those looking to promote change. Among our senior fellows are veteran policymakers who are analyzing proposals, both regulatory and legislative, for managing this new information ecosystem. All these pieces must fit together; like air and water and weather, our information environment is something we experience collectively as well as individually. Trust is what allows us to take risks, to explore and exchange ideas, to honestly weigh options on the merits rather than judge them only by their partisan seasoning.
All over the Kennedy School, and the University and others like it, scholars are testing their visions for solving our most perplexing problems. If we can’t share the insights they gain, if policymakers can’t leverage their expertise, and if citizens can’t trust the possibility of progress, this extraordinary house we’ve been building together for more than 240 years will slowly become uninhabitable. Trust and truth aren’t the only things that matter in a democracy, but no democracy can survive without them.
Nancy Gibbs is the Lombard Director of the Shorenstein Center and the visiting Edward R. Murrow Professor of Practice of Press, Politics and Public Policy. Until September 2017, she was editor in chief of TIME.