The future is replete with opportunities for managing the pace of change, responding to change, and determining how information is protected and revealed. As the pandemic continued to surge, hope that institutions would rise to the moment and show leadership has faded. Just more than one year after COVID-19 took over, trust has gone bankrupt. Recent events including protests against the election outcomes, violence at the U.S. Capitol, and brazen lawlessness have taken a heavy toll on trust. We can restore trust only by rebuilding completely, from the ground up. Our expectations should be high. Trust in business is growing as tech companies are limiting access to their platforms for people, organizations, and bots that spread misinformation. We can reestablish trust in the media by holding information sources and news outlets accountable. Trust in government and NGOs can be rebuilt with what the Edelman Trust Barometer describes as leading with facts and empathy. But it is a steep road ahead.
Rebuilding trust means reinvigorating civics education at all levels and for all ages, and this requirement goes beyond a basic education in how governments function to include the skills necessary to participate in civil society. Everyone needs to know how to analyze news and communication for misinformation, determine truth in public discourse, and assess the impact of individual as well as corporate responsibility for maintaining standards of truth. Absent this critical thinking and the ability to discern the difference between facts and misinformation, the resulting vacuum creates a culture ripe for the growth of lies, conspiracy theories, and ‘alternative facts.’ With little civics being taught in public schools, only twenty-three percent of eighth graders performed at or above the proficiency level on a national-level civics exam in 2016.
Of necessity, education is continuing beyond formal schooling. Tech companies should help users to determine the truthfulness of available information, continue to monitor social media platforms, establish processes enabling users to learn how to avoid hackers, and recognize scams and sites with ill intent. Plus, these businesses must do this all without violating individual rights to free speech and to protect their privacy.
Other institutions also have a role to play. Numerous police department now provide guides for parents on which social media sites may be inappropriate for children. In the same vein, the FBI has developed educational programs for middle school students that teach them how to be safe on the internet. The FBI Safe Online Surfing (FBI-SOS) program is a nationwide initiative designed to educate children in grades three through eight about the dangers they face on the internet and to help prevent crimes against children. It promotes cyber citizenship among students by engaging them in a fun, age-appropriate, competitive online program where they learn how to safely and responsibly use the internet. The program emphasizes the importance of cyber safety topics such as password security, smart surfing habits, and the safeguarding of personal information.
These are just initial efforts. More needs to be taught, particularly in terms of how to make sense of news and public information. As Joshua Yaffa stated in a recent New Yorker article, “If you don’t know how government actually works, you’re more likely to believe in conspiratorial versions of its doings.” (There’s truth to the old joke that one who has worked for government couldn’t possibly believe in conspiracies.)
Universities are pursuing their own paths to educating students about democratic processes, information streams, and their potential for manipulation. The University of Washington’s 2018 online elective “Calling Bullshit,” received an overwhelming response from students and educators. The viral clamoring for more knowledge on how to counter misinformation led to the establishment of the Center for an Informed Public. Launched in December 2019, the Center’s mission statement is to “resist strategic misinformation, promote an informed society, and strengthen democratic discourse.” The Center supports interdisciplinary research, courses, and publications on a broad spectrum of communications issues, ranging from misinformation regarding the COVID-19 Pandemic, to the role of bots and trolls in a crisis. Center professor, Dr. Carl Bergstrom commented on the Center’s Covid communications research, saying, “This is a crisis unfolding in slow motion, in a statistical way where we can only see pieces of it,” he says. “I recommend people pick one maybe two times a day to read what’s going on from reputable sources like The New York Times or STAT or WIRED—and if you must go on Twitter, block the hashtags.”
Increased levels of civic engagement, political awareness, and social activism are also good signs. More individuals are involved in grassroots movements from #MeToo, to #NeverAgain. Young people are engaged at every level and have their own voices in the mix. For example, Swedish teenager and environmental activist, Greta Thunberg, has recently published a book, No One is too Small to Make a Difference. Corporate involvement in supporting social causes is likewise rising. New corporate responsibility statements address the issue of sustainability at Amazon, Google (carbon free by 2030) and Target. A number of universities and other companies have reviewed and updated their sexual assault policies and diversity postures.
In a personal appeal, Apple CEO Tim Cook urged the U.S. Supreme Court to save the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, protecting hundreds of thousands of young immigrants from deportation. In June 2020 when the Court ruled against the Trump administration’s efforts to end the program, Cook said, “The four hundred seventy-eight Dreamers at Apple are members of our collective family. With creativity and passion, they’ve made us a stronger, more innovative American company. We’re glad for today’s decision and will keep fighting until DACA’s protections are permanent.”
The Black Lives Matter movement surged to the front of the mind for many Americans in the summer of 2020, the season of our discontent. The nonchalant killing of George Floyd by police officer Derek Chauvin on a city street in Minneapolis broke open a seeping wound of national shame and sparked a major outcry against police brutality (and policing practices more broadly), white supremacy, and the full, ugly history of institutional racism in America. Confederate statues were pulled down in cities across the country, state flags were changed, and the Confederate flag itself symbolically folded. A Gallup poll conducted in August 2020 revealed that American’s viewed race relations at their lowest point since 2001. The primary rationale given by respondents was the numbers of black Americans being killed by white police officers. But the spread of the coronavirus also impacted public awareness of racial inequities. News reports of how the virus has impacted black communities and people of color began to expose the racial inequities in health care. According to an Edelman special report published in May 2020, the spread of COVID-19 “highlights the depths of racial disparity across the U.S.” What does it take for the United States to see real change on the frontlines of race and inequality?
Focusing on Change
Other changes in public confidence in institutions have taken center stage as revealed by last year’s poll. This shift in confidence in institutions was highlighted by the public’s growing trust in the government to provide information about the pandemic. According to Edelman, trust in government sources surged eleven percent, with the public relying on government for protection at a level of trust not seen since World War II. Respondents want the government to continue to provide economic relief (eighty-six percent), to get the country back to normal (seventy-nine percent), to contain the spread of the virus (seventy-three percent), and to keep the public informed (eighty-six percent). When these things failed to materialize, by the end of 2020, trust tanked again.
There are great expectations for the business sector to partner with government in improving the economy and building new job opportunities. This expectation represents an inflection point for both businesses and NGOs, going beyond corporate social responsibility. Never has the need been greater for collaborative and cooperative approaches to rebuilding not only the economy, but also the underpinnings of society – education, access to health care, opportunities for fair housing, a boost to the minimum wage, and the potential for living a full life. While the May study revealed the pandemic has turned many trust variables around, the need for fair and accurate media coverage remains a critical point. Trust in traditional media grew seven points from January to May 2020, but by January 2021 that fragile trust bubble had burst. The stated trust in government to provide timely factual information about the pandemic, to support to the economy, and to help struggling families proved more hopeful than actual. The latest Edelman survey revealed trust in all information sources had hit a new low, reaching 35% for social media and only 58% for traditional media.
Social media platforms are likewise beginning to take stronger action to moderate content and prevent users from breaking the law. In the aftermath of the march of insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, big tech began to take action regarding the use of their platforms. Twitter closed former President Trump’s account and others began to take action to stop misinformation from spreading. These efforts may be cynically viewed as an attempt to stave off government regulation of tech, but they represent the beginning of a change to how platforms view responsibility for how their products are used.
While many individuals continue to practice what Edelman terms ‘poor information hygiene’ – not checking sources and blithely passing on misinformation, others are increasingly unwilling to merely accept information as it is delivered. Yet there is a caution: to beware of confirmation bias and seeking only that which matches previously held beliefs. Many now question sources, demand transparency, and explore references and sources. One would expect to this to bode well for journalism – greater public involvement should mean more thorough fact checking and increased awareness of scams, falsehoods, and hacks. There are more sites that support determining truth in news, both in terms of ferreting out manipulated media – from photographs to videos – and in determining false sources, lies, and bias. These range from Ad Fontes Media’s bell curve of bias in news to a number of non-partisan, fact-checking sites as listed on Middlebury Libraries homepage.
As fallout from political mayhem and pandemic lockdowns continue to push democratic institutions to move beyond the Information Apocalypse, a number of efforts will become more prevalent and visible:
- Increasing focus on stricter terms of service and regulation of tech firms, anti-trust cases, and a major focus on corporate responsibility for safeguarding privacy and truth.
- New respect for the planet, environmental safeguards, awareness of the effects of global warming, and the creative abilities of science.
- Increased partnering by state governments and business to protect privacy, stop hackers, find and force out bots and trolls, delete false accounts, and call out those who incite violence.
- Growing transparency in intelligence and awareness that shared information can effectively prevent false narratives and influence campaigns.
These actions represent the signs of a coming transformation, a culture shift from the Information Age’s ‘apocalyptic Wild West’ to tomorrow’s Knowledge Age. In this next generation of information, trust will be paramount. The responsibility for creating this massive cultural change lies with everyone: governments, businesses, non-governmental organizations, and the media – in short with all institutions that have a stake in preserving trust and truth, and with all citizens. Thankfully, a harsh and dystopian future isn’t guaranteed. We need to consciously develop media literacy standards in education at all levels, mandate responsible media, and build public trust and confidence in the knowledge that the false will be found out and eliminated.
These transformative actions are significant in and of themselves, but it is critical to go further. According to futurist Anne Lise Kjaer, “Things no longer change over a generation or a decade, but from year to year, even month to month, creating new arenas for disruptive ideas and innovation to emerge… Inevitably, this leads us to reconsider the future and our place within it.” We must act in order to make sense of the rapid pace of change, today and tomorrow, developing not just civics or media literacy but also futures literacy.
Many organizations are going even further, determined to meet future challenges head on. Businesses are scheduling foresight sessions, hosted by futurist companies like the Institute for the Future. The Institute and like organizations train business and government organizations to identify disruptors, recognize trends, develop opportunities for change management, and scout out indications of emerging possibilities. Today’s volatile operating environment has leaders realizing the key to prevailing in an uncertain future lies in the ability to not only identify potential change but to adapt in advance. A major factor in the ability to adapt is the willingness to partner, for institutions to work together and lead with facts and empathy.
But at the most basic level, responsibility for this change begins with the individual.
Citizens must take measures to secure and protect their privacy online and in the public space. Education must become more robust and available at all levels, not just in schools. Leaders must drive change within their organizations and cultures. While many experts predict digital life in the future will improve, they also caution that people must be engaged in the process to effect this transformation. Foresight increases agility and the ability to adapt and ensures that the fears many hold today are fully addressed. Basic rights and economic fairness must be taken into account and watched carefully.
With effort, tomorrow’s social media platforms will be increasingly responsible and committed to protecting the privacy and rights of its users. Future citizens will undoubtedly be better informed because they can have trust and confidence in the knowledge they possess, know their privacy is secure, and can trust their institutions. The Knowledge Age is there to be created, shaped, and developed by today’s tech firms, policy experts, and citizen activists. Everyone must embrace these innovations and reforms, insist on basic rights, fairness, and demand factual information that we can all trust, rely upon, and use with confidence.
Mari Eder is a Featured Contributor to WAR ROOM. She is a retired major general in the U.S. Army and an expert in public relations and strategic communication. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army War College, the U.S. Army, or the Department of Defense.
WAR ROOM Releases by Mari Eder:
- LINCOLN AS STRATEGIST: EXERCISING THE ELEMENTS OF NATIONAL POWER
- THE INFORMATION APOCALYPSE PART IX: ART VERSUS SCIENCE
- THE INFORMATION APOCALYPSE PART VIII: CIVICS LESSONS
- THE INFORMATION APOCALYPSE, PART VII: COMPETENCE AND ETHICS
- THE INFORMATION APOCALYPSE, PART VI: PARANOIA AND PRIVACY
- THE INFORMATION APOCALYPSE, PART V: THE FOURTH ESTATE
- THE INFORMATION APOCALYPSE, PART IV: INTELLIGENCE SECRETS OF SUCCESS
- INFORMATION APOCALYPSE, PART III: THE WAR ON REALITY
- INFORMATION APOCALYPSE, PART II: THIS TIME, IT’S PERSONAL
- THE INFORMATION APOCALYPSE … IS ALREADY HERE