The Sky Is Falling! Trust Is Dead!!

Do you hear that panicked murmur rumbling up from the masses?  It’s worse than fear — it’s failure!  It’s catastrophe!  It’s the absolute Armageddon of social media business strategy!

According to Edelman’s annual Trust Barometer survey, no one trusts anyone!

(Which is ironic, considering Chris Brogan and Julien Smith’s Trust Agents was a bestseller during the same year this survey was conducted.  But I digress…)

Here’s what happened:

Last year, 47 percent of respondents to the survey claimed to trust information from their peers (aka “people like me”), fueling the tendencies of social media gurus to target peers (and especially “influencers”) as a way to gain visibility for the brands they represent.  This year?  Only 27 percent made that same claim.

So much for social media, right?

Wrong.

According to Edelman, trust in TV is down 20 points as well.  Radio and newspapers also dropped.  Across the U.S., faith in media as a whole is in the basement.  Media and insurance were tied as the two least-trusted industries in America.

(Ironically, of the sources mentioned above, newspapers actually ranked highest in terms of respondents’ trust, at a scant 32 percent.  Surely that’ll make hundreds of downsized reporters feel better this winter…)

So… so much for media itself, right?

Still wrong.

Keep in mind that we’ve just survived one of the most tempestuous political years in American history, one in which our ruling parties have become ever more ideologically opposed.  Town halls and tea parties have proven that we’re increasingly incapable of having rational debates about even the most basic elements of our social fabric.  No wonder trust in “people like me” is down — trust in everyone, across all facets of the system, is down.  The only people we seem comfortable trusting anymore are ourselves.

And that explains why a book like Trust Agents can find an audience: because people are desperate to connect.  People want to trust each other, and they want to be able to trust the media that feeds them their information.  They’re just skeptical of everyone’s motives and transparencies, including that of their peers, whom (we’ve all finally realized) have access to the same unreliable media as everyone else.

Instead of seeing this report as a death blow to the legitimacy of the media empires, those same empires should be taking this study as an opportunity to refocus on what their audience actually wants: clear, unbiased, reliable information.

As for the social media campaigns of the world, congratulations: now you don’t have to worry about “going viral” or targeting those pesky influencers anymore.  Now you just have to appeal to every human being, one at a time, and treat them like valuable individuals.  Now you have to earn their trust.

And in that case, maybe there’s a silver lining to all this skepticism after all.