In hard times, difficult situations and global crises, we need to be able to trust the information we get from our governments. Reliable information is important to help people do what’s needed and to avoid worse danger or health outcomes. We are seeing prime examples of that on a daily basis through out Covid-19, not just online and on social media, but also from the podium of the White House.

Bad information hurts, not just social cohesion but to people’s health. A lack of trust in the information that we get may push people to look into conspiracy theories and other quack stuff out there. This has been a pre-occupation of mine and it was with that in mind that I saw the following story from today’s Globe and Mail, one that contained some reporting that scared the daylights out of me:

The Globe reported on a newly released survey from Leger and the Association for Canadian Studies that asked questions about the response of governments to Covid-19 and their views on the information that they are getting. There was some good news in the results, showing that people are pretty satisfied with the responses by different levels of government. Specifically they noted that 68% said they were satisfied with what their local governments response, 74% with the federal government’s and 78% with their provincial government.

Considering where numbers like that normally rest, you would think that there wasn’t anything to worry about. You don’t see satisfaction numbers like that hardly ever, so to see that in a global pandemic should speak well about how governments are responding across the board. But they also asked questions that went into specifics about the information people are getting & conspiracy theories about the disease that are floating around. Those results showed us the following:

  • 50% felt governments were deliberately withholding information about the pandemic, with 60% of Quebeckers surveyed feeling that way
  • 15% or less believe stories that Bill Gates is responsible for the spread of the coronavirus, that there is a link between the pandemic and 5G networks, or that COVID-19 never existed in the first place
  • More than 33% believe the virus was created in a lab, or by the Chinese government.
  • 19% said they believed the number of deaths related to COVID-19 is exaggerated
  • More than 50% agreed with at least one of the nine theories put forward

The first and the last figures there sent chills down my spine. Not only do apparently half of those surveyed believe that governments are withholding information, but more than 50% believed in at least one conspiracy theory that they were presented with. That’s a scary and dangerous mixture that could do a lot of long-term damage to not only public health efforts, but also governance in general. And those numbers were recorded despite the high level of satisfaction they also recorded with the response of those same governments.

That tells me a couple of things. Firstly, it tells me that people are giving their governments the benefit of the doubt for now. It’s clear that many Canadians believe that their government isn’t being 100% transparent with them, but they are willing at accept that as long as they do a good job and don’t screw up. They get the importance of the moment and are willing to give that latitude.

The other thing that this tells me is that the misinformation crap that is floating around social media is making an impact far beyond what it should. It’s notable that some of those same conspiracy theories that have greater acceptance by those surveyed are some of the same ones that President Donald Trump has previously spewed in press conferences and all over Twitter. That those words have taken such hold is dangerous and scary. But for me the part that is the scariest isn’t that any one conspiracy theory has taken hold. It’s the fact that over 50% of those surveyed agreed with at least one of them. That means that over half of those people believed in a conspiracy theory to help explain this moment, which is freaking scary stuff. That’s also a serious failure on the behalf of governments and social media companies to get that crap under control.

What that combination of satisfaction & agreement with conspiracy theories tells us is that the trust that Canadians have in their government right now is built on a foundation that’s weaker than it should be. It also says that if Canadians stop giving their government the benefit of the doubt, that could be very problematic for a lot of us. That’s why it’s so important that governments err to the side of transparency because doing so will help put those concerns at ease. It will also help to build more trust in them, which is the best way to undo the damage of those conspiracy theories reeking so much damage online. I would hope that our government leaders across the country will take note of that survey and keep it in mind. One survey doesn’t make a trend and really only marks a moment in time. But even saying that, those numbers paint a scary picture, one we would do best not to ignore.