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In Institutions We Trust, or Not


Paul Verna, Senior Analyst

About half of the US population is on Facebook, according to the social network’s own estimates. That’s at least 150 million people spending billions of collective hours connecting with friends, interacting with brands and revealing some amount of personal information.

Considering those numbers, it’s hard to believe how few people actually trust social networks. In a survey by Vision Critical, only 16% of respondents said online social networks were “completely” or “very trustworthy.” Only chat rooms and blogs scored lower in the trust meter, and the media—both online and traditional—were substantially more trusted than social nets. What gives?

A couple of factors are likely to blame for the low levels of trust in social networks. First, the survey included all social networks and specifically singled out Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, MySpace and Flickr. These are very different services, each with its own set of baggage. It’s likely that a network with little privacy protection—such as MySpace—would have been perceived by respondents to be less trustworthy than others, and that would have dragged down the responses.

The other likely factor is bad publicity around Facebook’s privacy settings. Even though the survey was taken long before the film “The Social Network” cast a harsh light on Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, privacy issues have dogged the company for years. The cumulative effect of negative media stories on this subject likely colored the survey responses.

This kind of attrition of trust was measurable in Gallup data on confidence in US institutions. The poll found that confidence in the presidency and Congress dropped dramatically from 2009 to 2010. The 6-point drop in the confidence level in Congress is particularly striking because it started from such a low base. In 2009, only 17% of respondents trusted Congress—the lowest-ranked category in the survey. In 2010, the level dropped to 11%, also the lowest for that year.

This loss of faith is reflected in—and perhaps partially caused by—a barrage of negative publicity over the past 18 months.

A similar pattern afflicted the financial sector after the economic meltdown that began in 2008. Edelman’s “US Financial Services Trust Barometer 2010” found that the percentage of informed US consumers who trusted banks plummeted to 29% in 2010, from 68% in 2007. This drop was by far the most precipitous of any country, reflecting the central role that Wall Street played in what would become a global crisis.

Older respondents were considerably less trusting than those between ages 25 and 34. This is likely because Americans approaching retirement age were more directly affected by the financial crisis than the younger demographic.

The silver lining for banks and other institutions with low trust scores is that negative effects can be reversed. The Gallup poll cited above showed that confidence in banks actually gained a percentage point in mid-2010. Granted, the scores were in the low 20% range, so this isn’t exactly champagne-popping news. But the recovery suggests that after bad publicity blows over, people’s trust levels can bounce back.

For more on trust levels and word-of-mouth marketing, see the upcoming eMarketer report “Word-of-Mouth Marketing: Leveraging Trust Online and Offline.”

Keep your business ahead of the digital curve. Learn more about becoming an eMarketer Total Access client today.

Check out today’s other article, “Mobile Ad Spending Up Nearly 80% in 2010.”

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