For democracy to function and economies prosper, people need to believe that their fellow citizens are trustworthy: that they are well intentioned, will honor commitments and will not take advantage of them. When people have little to no information about others, it is difficult to believe that.
The fact that Latin America and the Caribbean has the lowest rates of trust in the world, with one in ten people believing that others can be trusted and only three in ten trusting their government is telling. It means that either there is too little information or that the information available in the region does not help create trust.
That must be reversed. Information that builds trust is key to citizenship and people’s willingness to contribute to collective endeavors. It is fundamental to innovative, productive and inclusive societies.
Part of the problem, as revealed in the IDB’s 2021 Development in the Americas (DIA) report, lies in accurate information that reveals very real failings: the self-dealing, the corruption, and the uncivic behavior found among too many businesses and politicians, the inefficiency, poverty and inequality. Even where businesses are honest and governments do things right, however, positive information often struggles to get through. That, in turn, makes it more difficult to convince people to back long-term political and economic projects, pay their taxes, vote, and engage in other forms of civic engagement. It inhibits cohesion and prosperity. Changing that dynamic is a key focus of our report.
Human beings are by nature reluctant to change their beliefs and to seek out or disseminate information that contradicts their views. They also have a preference for negative news, devoting greater attention to stories about untrustworthy and uncivic behavior. These innate characteristics make it hard, even in the best of times, to communicate objective information and convince people they can trust others.
Social Media and Trust
Modern communication technologies have only amplified those tendencies. Social media can shine a light on corruption. It can enhance the ability of citizens to mobilize in protest and provide a wide audience for trust-building civic content. But it also tends to cater for audiences in niches in which people seek out information that confirms their beliefs, creating an echo-chamber effect. Some social media exacerbate this tendency by using algorithms that reinforce users isolation from contrary views. An IDB experiment in Brazil and Mexico reveals how social media engagement can magnify declines in trust already present in the region. Other academics have found a relationship between social media and polarization. All these findings are of concern in a region where large majorities of the population in many countries use social media for news and networking.
There are nonetheless ways to confront threats to one’s reputation and instill trust in this difficult environment. In the private sector, online customer reviews of products and services can provide a forum for strangers to easily share information outside of social media channels. As described in the DIA, many sharing economy companies understand that to generate trust they need to provide information and provide third-party dispute resolutions. The growth of companies like Uber, Airbnb and the like in this context is no coincidence. Third party audits and certifications can also bolster firms’ reputations when they produce and deliver to high standards. And strong regulatory bodies significantly increase trust in the business sector.
The challenge is more difficult for politicians and government officials. Citizens seeking information on political performance face what is known as a collective action problem: the reality that their efforts to inform themselves are unlikely to be rewarded. After all, regardless of what they find, there is little they can do on their own to encourage officials to behave in a more trustworthy manner. This is particularly the case in low trust societies where people tend to doubt that others will join them to punish public officials’ untrustworthy behavior.
Faced with only partisan information, people struggle to identify opportunistic behaviors in their group and they easily spot them in others. It is also hard to disentangle officials’ performance from the results: There are often too many external factors that affect citizen welfare. As a result, with only subjective and partisan information at hand, most people struggle to assess whether a politician is worth keeping or not.
Effective Information Strategies
The good news is that governments don’t have to throw in the towel, surrender to human biases, and accept sleights to their reputation. On the contrary, they can adopt information strategies that correct mistaken beliefs and enhance citizens’ trust. In Buenos Aires, for example, the city government sought to increase transparency by publishing more than 50 goals on its website, ranging from installing security cameras to increasing access for people with disabilities. This effort, along with the tracking and fulfillment of goals, significantly increased trust in the government, according to a survey. In Chile, informing citizens that corruption of the police was much rarer that in the United States or the rest of Latin America boosted willingness to pay higher taxes for policing. Messages that a city government in Argentina was using public monies to improve government services, had a marked effect, increasing tax payments rates by 14 percentage points among citizens living outside the city who could not easily observe the government at work. The key in all these efforts was their pro-active nature, the way they filled information vacuums with accurate and verifiable information. They can be especially effective when the information is provided through narratives, anecdotes, and other emotionally evocative means. Latin America and the Caribbean faces a crisis of trust, with weak bonds of citizenship in which ordinary people lack faith in each other and in government institutions. It is a crisis compounded by the adverse effects of social media and has led to a situation in which citizens doubt they can engage in collective action to improve their welfare. These are immense challenges, inimical to growth, prosperity and cohesion. But as the many examples provided in the report reveal, governments can increase trust by describing what they are going to do, doing it, and disseminating what they have achieved. Credible and compelling information strategies are also available to private firms. Creating trust is difficult and often takes a long time. But it is essential to the success of Latin America and the Caribbean.