The global “infodemic” has undermined trust in institutions and left people not knowing where or who to turn to for reliable information. A survey of 33,000 respondents in 28 countries by research firm Edelman Data & Intelligence found that business (61 percent) has emerged as the most trusted institution, replacing government (53 percent), which fell substantially since its 11-point surge in the company’s mid-year update of its Trust Barometer last May.

The 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer found that a majority of survey respondents believe that government leaders (57 percent), business leaders (56 percent), and journalists (59 percent) are purposely trying to mislead people by saying things they know are false. The infodemic has driven trust in all news sources to record lows with social media (35 percent) and owned media (41 percent) the least trusted; traditional media (53 percent) saw the largest drop in trust at eight points.

“This is the era of information bankruptcy,” says Richard Edelman, CEO of Edelman. “We’ve been lied to by those in charge, and media sources are seen as politicized and bias. The result is a lack of quality information and increased divisiveness. Fifty-seven percent of Americans find the political and ideological polarization so extreme that they believe the U.S. is in the midst of a cold civil war. The violent storming of the U.S. 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.”

Business is the only institution deemed ethical and competent by the survey; business outscores government by 48 points on competency and is approaching NGOs in ethics. Over the last five months, business seized the high ground of trust by proactively developing vaccines in record time and finding new ways to work. Trust continues to move local, with respondents placing even higher reliance on “my employer” at 76 percent, and “my employer CEO” at 63 percent.

In its analysis, the Trust Barometer report points to stark, but radically different realities of escalating stock prices and Great Recession-like unemployment levels for helping trigger a record trust gap of 16 points (informed public at 68 percent, mass population at 52 percent). There are double-digit trust gaps in 25 of 28 markets, versus seven in 21 markets just a decade ago.

The report reveals that the biggest opportunity to earn business trust is guarding information quality. Fifty-three percent of respondents believe corporations need to fill the information void when the news media is absent. Communications from “my employer” is the most trusted source of information (61 percent), beating out national government (58 percent), traditional media (57 percent) and social media (39 percent).

“The events of this past year reinforced business’ responsibility to lead on societal issues, such as upskilling workers and racial justice,” says Edelman. “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: over eight in 10 want CEOs to speak out on important social issues, such as the pandemic’s impact, job automation and societal problems. More than two-thirds expect them to step in when the government does not fix societal problems, and “my employer CEO” is the only societal leader trusted by both Trump voters (61 percent) and Biden voters (68 percent).

“There is a void in leadership that CEOs must fill,” says Dave Samson, vice chairman of Corporate Affairs. “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 nonprofit organizations to take collective action to solve societal problems."

More information from the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer can be found here.