Trust Networks and Society
What you believe has a lot to do with who you believe.
Who you believe, and who you don’t, can be represented as a network. Networks cause and reinforce trust.
In this post, I’m going to try to make the connection between trust, society, and the delta variant of COVID.
As I begin writing this post on July 20, 2021, I know about Delta Variant. We know that it’s burning through large populations of unvaccinated people. I think most people see it coming. And as the days passed, I watched increasing anxiety about what is to come. As a I publish this on August 1, there still isn’t much evidence of a mass urgency to vaccinate. So why the inaction?
This isn’t the first national emergency that required mass public support. The United States hired many firms to produce propaganda during the Second World War. One of those firms would revitalize, update, and rebrand the term so it felt more trustworthy. In the late 1940’s, a firm renamed it Public Relations. Core to the practice of Public Relations is trust. One Public Relations firm, Edelman, is concerned enough with trust that it measures it regularly. They publish a Trust Barometer. Each year, they survey several thousand people, covering 27 global markets, and they put together a report.
Edelman’s Trust Barometer makes the distinction between a segment called The Informed Public and the Mass Population. The Informed Public are defined as aged 25-64, college educated, in the top 25% of House Hold Income in each country, and report “significant engagement in public policy and business news”. Edelman estimates that they make up 17% of the total global population.
They ask each segment how much they trust various institutions and groups. In Canada, there’s usually a pretty big gap in how much the Informed Public trusts institutions and how much the Mass Population trusts. The Informed Public trusts more – a gap of 9 points.
In 2021 trust in traditional media, search engines, owned media, and social media have all fallen. Traditional media lost ten points, from 65 to 55 points. Search engines from 53 to 47. Owned media from 37 to 32. Social media from 26 to 22. People tend to distrust CEO’s, but they do tend to trust their employer though. Trust in their own employer went up one point to 76 in Canada.
Trust has decayed. And it hasn’t decayed at the same rate among all segments and mediums.
Because trust enables specialization, complexity, and progress, when trust networks erode, they make us all worse off. A closed system of 15,000 people could learn at a faster rate than a closed system of 150 people, because there are more opportunities for each individual in the 15,000 system than the smaller one. The person who can focus all day on making horseshoes can get better, faster, at making horseshoes than the person who has to make horseshoes, feed the horses, weed the garden, milk the cow, gather wood, and forage for iron bearing rock. Larger systems enable faster learning and as a result, greater productivity. The chain is: more trust, more specialization, more productivity. When people believe the gains from productivity are shared fairly, more trust accumulates in the system. When people believe that the system is rigged, trust erodes.
Trust, and the cooperation that goes with it, seems really quite difficult to create and maintain. Morals, stories, and common taboos are unifying and do help. There are stories about how cheaters will be punished and the charitable will be rewarded. And there are stories about food taboos rooted in handling product refrigeration. They’re a binding agent intended to increase trust. It’s just hard to get enough people to agree on a set of stories that enable trust. Which is why the massing of media is ever so important and disruptive every time there’s a leap in that technology.
Consider the Delta Variant of COVID. There are many reasons for vaccine hesitancy. I’ve heard stories about mistrust in the profit motive of Big Pharma (Memories of Purdue Pharma abound). I’ve heard statements that there is no effective way to get justice from corporate entities – that they get away with crimes because they can negotiate fines that are a fraction fo the harm they cause. I’ve heard stories of risk estimation: either a belief that their personal risk is controllable or the consequences of acquiring COVID are less than the consequences of a vaccine. I’ve listened to arguments that are rooted in a form of morality about liberty and choice, and I’ve read arguments that are rooted in considerable mistrust of society beyond their own social network.
A fair minded person might be able to see cause for mistrust given the track record of some entities and the performance of some institutions. Depending on who you believe, the mistrust may have been rightfully earned. There’s a bit of a spectrum here – one that ranges from improbable conspiracy theories to logical constructions from first principles. Some reasonable. Some not. It depends in part on which stories you choose to believe and who is telling them. After all, propaganda is just another word for public relations.
It’s funny to think about sharing figures from a public relations firm about trust in a post about trust, isn’t?
If networks cause and reinforce trust, what is the effect of the decay of networks themselves on society?
For example, consider COVID’s Delta variant in Canada.
Canadian children will return to school in September. Delta will vector through the classroom and into unvaccinated households. Entire unvaccinated families will fall ill rapidly. It will peak. It will then fall.
I can’t predict if the spike will be high enough to break the healthcare system. Everything that I have read about the R0 of Delta is that it is very high. That suggests a particularly brutal spike through the remaining unvaccinated population and more than a few breakthrough cases in the vaccinated population. Everything that I have read from owned media sources about the medical community is that they are exhausted and many are leaving the profession.
I can’t predict if the spike would induce its own demand for the vaccine. I don’t know how quickly the vaccination system can spool up and spool down. I’ve read that it takes two weeks for the vaccine to really get effective, and, there’s a gap between the two doses.
This is to say that it’s as though the Delta Variant is able to spread faster than immunity to the Delta Variant can spread.
I can predict that public support for a harsh lockdown, in Toronto at least, would be particularly low. The Second and Third Wave lockdowns came at a heavy social and economic cost. Many Canadians sacrificed for collective security. Most Canadians put their concerns about the vaccine aside, took what small risk there was, and rolled up their sleeves for two doses of the vaccine. There might not be a whole lot of tolerance left in the network for those who refused to sacrifice. Compassion fatigue, justified on a moral basis, is likely to be real. Canadian society depends on cooperation because it’s impossible to enforce all the laws of the land one by one. It relies on consent. If the number of people who refuse to consent exceeds a threshold, it might not be possible for public officials to exhort their way to compliance.
This seems particularly destabilizing. The reliance of public health officials on the lockdown instrument was very high during Canada’s First, Second and Third waves. That instrument may not be nearly as responsive for the Fourth. Those who trusted the vaccines got them. Those who did not have refused. This is far more than a rock and a hard place kind of situation. It may lead to something particularly worse.
It would seem as though August is the last window of opportunity to avert a destabilizing Delta powered Fourth Wave. If a large mass of people, around 10% of all adults, were to change their minds about the vaccine and inoculate themselves in early August, there may be just enough immunity to avoid destabilization. It just seems unlikely because the mistrust within such networks are locked in and reinforced. But there is a chance.
Trust networks matter a lot in reinforcing the worst and averting the worst.