NEW YORK — The 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer has uncovered a “global infodemic” in which people no longer know where or who to turn to for reliable information.

Most respondents to the annual global survey of 33,000 people in 28 countries (57%) believe that government leaders (57%), business leaders (56%) and journalists (59%) are purposely trying to mislead people by saying things they know are false.

This environment has driven trust in all news sources to record lows, with social media (35%) and owned media (41%) the least trusted, while traditional media, at 53%, saw the largest drop in trust at eight points.

Academic experts (59%) and company technical experts (59%) remain the most credible spokespeople but experienced an 8-point and 10-point drop, respectively. The largest drop in trust among spokespeople was regular employees, down 14 points to 40%, and “a person like yourself”, down seven points to 53%.

In addition, a December flash poll after the US election found a huge 39-point gap in trust in media between Biden voters (57%) and Trump voters (18%) – a 15-point drop among Trump supporters since November.

“This is the era of information bankruptcy,” said CEO Richard Edelman. “We’ve been lied to by those in charge and media sources are seen as politicized and biased. The result is a lack of quality information and increased divisiveness: 57% of Americans find the political and ideological polarization so extreme that they believe the US is in the midst of a cold civil war.

“The violent storming of the Capitol last week and the fact that only one-third of people are willing to get a Covid vaccine as soon as possible crystalize the dangers of misinformation.”

Trust dropped precipitously in the two largest economies. The US (40%) and Chinese (30%) governments are deeply distrusted by respondents from the 26 other markets surveyed. Trust among Chinese citizens in the country’s institutions fell 18 points in the last six months to 72%. The US, in the bottom quartile of trusted countries as of November, dropped a further five points post-election (43%) a score which places it ahead of only Japan and Russia.

Overall in this year's Trust Barometer, business (61%) has emerged as the most trusted institution, replacing government (53%), which fell substantially since its 11-point surge in the mid-year update last May.

Business is the only institution deemed ethical and competent, outscoring government by 48 points on competency – approaching the level of NGOs on ethics. Edelman puts this down to business “seizing the high ground of trust” over the past five months by developing vaccines in record time and finding new ways to work. And communications from “my employer” are still the most trusted source of information, at 61%.

The realities of escalating stock prices and unemployment levels have helped trigger a record trust gap of 16 points between the audience defined as the “informed public” at 68% and the mass population at 52%. There are double-digit trust gaps among the two cohorts in 25 of 28 markets this year, versus seven in 21 markets a decade ago.

This year's report suggests that the biggest opportunity for businesses to earn trust is filling the information void:  53% of respondents believe corporations have a responsibility to provide quality information when the news media is absent.

Edelman said: “The events of this past year reinforced business’ responsibility to lead on societal issues such as upskilling workers and racial justice. It has also led to new expectations of business expanding its remit into unfamiliar areas, such as providing and safeguarding information.”

Given the new expectations of business, there are now new demands of CEOs: more than 80% of respondents want CEOs to speak out on social issues such as the impact of the pandemic, job automation and societal problems. More than two-thirds expect them to step in when the government does not fix societal problems.

Edelman’s vice chairman of corporate affairs Dave Samson said: “There is a void in leadership that CEOs must fill. It starts with a broader mandate for business that focuses societal engagement with the same rigor used to deliver on profits. Business must work to fulfill the Business Roundtable’s promise of a stakeholder economy, but it cannot be a solo actor. It must partner with government and NGOs to take collective action to solve societal problems.”

Other findings from the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer include only one in four respondents practicing good “information hygiene”, defined as news engagement, avoiding echo chambers, verifying information and not amplifying unvetted information.

Among those who practice poor information hygiene there is far less willingness to get the Covid vaccine within the first year of its availability (59% versus 70% for people with good information hygiene). There is even greater hesitancy about the vaccine among Black people in the US, based on past and present medical inequities and mistreatment.