Events kicked off today for SXSW — a multi-day series of festivals and conferences in Austin, TX — with a jam-packed, star-studded lineup of interviews and panels on the convergence of interactive, film, and music.

Among those sessions was the “SXSW Report on Trust: Gov’t, Tech & Media” a discussion with none other than journalist Dan Rather, joined by a panel of experts to weigh in on the annual Trust Barometer: a flash poll of event attendees conducted by SXSW and communications firm Edelman to measure trust in future technologies, media, government, and business.

Rather was joined by SXSW Director Hugh Forrest, WP Engine’s Heather Brunner, and Edelman Digital’s Jess Clifton to discuss the results of the poll in a panel moderated by Edelman CEO Richard Edelman.

Here are the findings that stood out.

Live From SXSW, Day One: Do We Trust Anything Anymore?

The Majority of SXSW Attendees Trust the Media

What the Survey Results Say

The Trust Barometer indicates 61% of SXSW attendees trust the media (compare that to the global average of 43%), with a scant 14% believing that media, in general, cannot be improved or repaired.

However, the panel was sure to make a distinction between the media as a collection of reporters, publications, and news applications — and social media platforms.

“Social media and search [are] not media,” said Clifton, during the panel discussion. “Social platforms are not media publishers. It’s a community that’s publishing content, and we have to delineate.”

Apparently, the audience polled was able to make that distinction, with 98% responding that “media” meant journalists.

That could explain why 84% are more trusting of traditional media outlets, and significantly less so of search engines (44%) and social media (20%).

That low faith in social media, however, could be tied to the ongoing allegations of it being weaponized to spread misinformation by outside agents. Nine out of 10 members of that same polled audience seemed to have significant concerns in this area, saying they’re worried about false information or fake news being published with negative intent.

That aligns with new research from MIT which shows false news is 70% more likely to be re-tweeted than accurate information. So, while at first glance, a high rate of trust in the media may come as surprise, the distinction between traditional sources of news (and those who report it) and the platforms used to share it is crucial.

Trust in Business, Government, and Future Technology Is Down

What the Survey Results Say

While the Trust Barometer surprisingly indicated trust in the media is up, the audience also reported a declined level of faith in business (31% — 21 percentage points lower than the global average). Government is even lower, with 26% of respondents saying they trust it, which is 17 percentage points lower than the global average.

There wasn’t a great deal of context around these results discussed, though many of them echo the overall sentiment discussed around the trust in media and concerns about social platforms and search engines. The latter two are often managed by publicly-traded businesses, falling under the category 31% of respondents say they trust. 

What was even more surprising, considering the interactive nature and enthusiasm at SXSW, is a fairly low percentage of the audience polled trusts future technology. The lowest was blockchain technology, which garnered only 27% of attendee trust.

That was followed by autonomous vehicles at 33%, and the same percentage reporting trust in virtual reality (VR) platforms. While blockchain and self-driving technology do raise concerns about security and safety (a Reuters/Ipsos poll from January indicated two-thirds of Americans are less-than-thrilled about the idea of riding in an autonomous vehicle), the wariness of VR is not quite as easy to explain.

It could come down to the idea many don’t see the practical relevance or applicability of VR. That might also explain why it has yet to become truly mainstream (we’ll be covering a SXSW session on that very topic next week), and why some marketers doubt its usefulness in campaigns and communications. 

Self-driving technology and blockchain were designed to solve problems — like traffic management and driver safety — as well as the security of transaction-related information. VR, it seems, originated largely in entertainment, but hasn’t reached a price point that makes it accessible to all interested consumers.

Where We Go From Here

While most content creators are not frequently considered traditional journalists or members of the press, the panel believes brands, and those responsible for messaging, play a crucial role in this widespread distrust of social platforms often used for marketing purposes.

Consider the changes to Facebook’s algorithm made earlier this year, for example, surfacing less content from brands in the News Feed and more from individual users’ friends and family. Since those changes took effect, people are actually spending less time on Facebook — an aggregate drop in usership by about 50 million hours each day.

One must wonder if that’s due to the phenomenon that Edelman called “self-sourcing,” in which many consumers only engage with the news and information that aligns with what they already believe — a sentiment echoed by Henry Franco, HubSpot’s brand marketing associate, when YouTube began labeling state-funded content.

“It all boils down to psychology,” he said at the time. “People tend to believe what aligns with their existing values.”

And that, said Edelman, can make some content creators “more inclined to be in the thought bubble.” So, what is a brand to do to address this issue?

“The intersection of humanity and expertise is what people are looking for,” said Brunner. “A guide for that is: What’s right for your employees? What’s right for your customers?”

That begins, she explained, by building advocacy from within and building trust among your own team and employees. That advocacy is mirrored in the content the brand and employee advocates broadcast externally.

“If [employees] trust the business, they’re going to be more bought-in,” Brunner said, “and bring that level of authenticity to your customers.”

Even Rather weighed in here, agreeing brand consistency across all facets of communication is key.

“You can’t be one thing with your employees,” he said, “and another one with your clients and customers.”

I’ll be here throughout SXSW to cover the latest events, announcements, and insights. Feel free to weigh in on Twitter with questions, or let me know what type of news you’d like to read. 

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