[Column] Distrust

Trump’s 2016 election, the anti-vaxxer movement: both arise from a distrust of institutions and the elite. Truthfulness is the answer, writes columnist Monique van der Veen.

Monique van der Veen: “Als je je zorgen maakt over polarisatie, dan is uitgaan van ‘Ik ben het probleem’ een goede optie.” (Foto Sam Rentmeester)

I read a newspaper article last weekend about Trump’s lasting impact on several political parties across Europe that have taken on a similar style and politics. However, I wouldn’t simply give the credit for that to Trump. Trump is also a symptom of the times we are living in, or he wouldn’t have been elected in 2016.

I recognise a large level of distrust of the establishment and the elite in these political movements and the sentiments of their voters. I recognised it first in 2008 in vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, and the Tea Party that followed. I was amazed by the idea that people considered that their opinion, however unknowledgeable they were on an issue, should be considered an equally valid assessment of reality as that of experts.

This idea is common in many other movements that have absolutely nothing to do with Donald Trump, like the flat earth movement, the anti-vaccination movement or the various movements that contend that Covid-19 is no worse than the common flu.

Where does this distrust of institutions, experts and the elite come from? In his talk for Studium Generale Delft last September, Joris Luyendijk (a prominent Dutch journalist), largely blamed social media and the high degree of illiteracy in the Netherlands. Yet, Sarah Palin’s candidacy and the Tea Party were in the early days of social media, and the anti-vax movement predates social media entirely. So while social media probably amplifies the problem, it is probably not the root cause. Luyendijk thought that the solution would be to achieve a much higher rate of literacy in the Netherlands (a very worthy cause in and of itself!) arguing that if more people learn to read and write, they can be taught to properly interpret reality and develop a view of the world.

What led to the disappearance of trust in institutions and the elite?

I have my doubts about this solution. Firstly, many of the people that are anti vaccinations or believe that the Earth is flat, for example, are very literate and can even express themselves very eloquently. Secondly, teaching people how to view the world could come across as a rather elitist point-of-view which would backfire in tackling movements that are essentially grounded in distrust of the elite. This is paralleled by Marijn Janssen’s research that showed that placing warnings on messages containing misinformation on social media actually makes the problem worse.

The essence is that you can reason and place all the disclaimers you want, but readers won’t believe you if they do not trust you. So how can this trust be rebuilt? And what actually led to the disappearance of trust in institutions and the elite? Personally, my trust was shaken when practically all the news media avoided properly reporting on the mass sexual assault on New Year’s eve 2015/2016 in Cologne, until they were forced to by the outrage of the public. The female mayor of Cologne stating that women should keep at arm’s length from strangers to avoid assault, didn’t help either.

Similarly, the RIVM (Netherlands National Institute for Public Health and the Environment) lost some of its authority when it claimed during the first Covid-19 wave that personal protective equipment (PPE) was medically unnecessary (in Dutch) for short contact in care homes. It later turned out that the advice was based on the shortage of PPE.

The key to being trustworthy is to report as truthfully as possible, rather than presenting things in a manner that promotes your own cause or values. To us scientists I would say, don’t let your goal be to convince others, but to be as truthful as possible.

Monique van der Veen is Associate Professor at the Faculty of Applied Sciences, department of Chemical Engineering. You can read about the work of her research team here and follow her on Twitter at @MAvanderVeen

Monique van der Veen / Columnist

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