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  • Pauline Hoffmann

Authority - whom do you trust?


The topic this week comes courtesy of a friend and colleague. She listened to one of my podcasts (which you may also do: https://anchor.fm/data-doyenne) and said, you need to clarify what you mean by "authority."


You may recall the last two issues of this newsletter reference how you may tell the difference between what is real and what is not. Authority is on the list. Let's break that down and I'll start with her very much on point complaint.


I mention that authority is who wrote the piece, who references the piece, who is giving it voice in one way or another. For example, I consider myself an authority on a number of topics including infodemics (dis/misinformation) - the subject of this newsletter. I have the credentials to back that up. I have a Ph.D. in communication. I studied conflict resolution. I participated in the World Health Organization's Infodemic Manager Training Program...I could go on but I think you get the point....I have some clout.


I have a Ph.D. It's in communication. One of my degrees is in biology. I have some science clout. I do not, however, have enough clout to go on about quantum physics, for example. I can spell "quantum physics" which is about what I know about it (and you can bet that I triple-checked how to spell "quantum physics" so as not to embarrass myself in this newsletter). I am also not going to yammer on about Plato or Aristotle. Here's what I know about them - they're dead dude philosophers.


In addition to checking a person's credentials you should also check that those credentials are relevant to the topic at hand. Let's go back to quantum physics because everyone wants to. (I read minds.) I would feel comfortable writing about this topic if.....I talked to someone in the know. I have a good friend who is a physics professor. I would reach out to him to ask for guidance, information, resources. Then I would feel confident distilling that information for my audience. I might even circle back to him to have him read what I had written to be sure I have no errors of fact. I would absolutely note my sources which I would have reviewed to ensure they are good. I would make sure I added as much credence to my statements as possible mindful that this is not necessarily my area of expertise.


I want you to think about that when you look to someone for advice. Let's consider Covid. I value the opinion of physicians on this subject with this caveat....I value the opinion of a public health physician or an infectious disease specialist over, say, a podiatrist. A podiatrist could know much about diseases and vaccines but this might not be the first medical person I would seek out as an authority on the subject. This person has some legitimate credentials but are they in an area of expertise you need?


That leads to a brief conversation about trust (and you can bet I will circle back to this topic in future issues of this newsletter). Whom do you trust? How do you know whom to trust? Why should you trust them? Each year, Edelman, a global communication firm, releases its Edelman Trust Barometer. I encourage you to take a look. It is quite compelling. I will reference a couple of data points from its top ten trust recap.

  • Distrust is our default. "Nearly 6 in 10 say their default tendency is to distrust something until they see evidence it is trustworthy."

  • Business is one of the most trusted institutions (61% of those surveyed trust business); government and the media are not ("Nearly one out of every two respondents view government and media as divisive forces in society—48% and 46%, respectively.")

  • "Concerns over fake news or false information being used as a weapon is now at an all-time high of 76%."

Certainly there are other points but I want to focus on these specifically. We default to distrust. I'm not necessarily opposed to that. I don't want people to automatically trust something. I want people to question it. That said, there are some institutions and people I do trust without thinking about it. Conversely, there are those I don't right off the bat. (I will share those in dribs and drabs - don't want to give you all my secrets in one newsletter. I want you to trust me and to come back).


We have also been fed such a toxic narrative about "fake news" that we don't necessarily trust any news anymore. That does sadden me. I've worked with journalists for years. All of the journalists I know are as above board as anyone. They are also committed to truth-telling and fact-finding. Are there those who don't do that? Of course. I think you will find those bad eggs in every discipline - it is hardly journalism-specific. That said, certainly question something if you think it is suspect. Journalists aren't above the "authority" law, so to speak.


What about influence and influencers? We hear these terms quite often. [As an aside, "influencers" back in the day were called "spokespersons." Just sayin'.] Please keep in mind that many so-called influencers are paid to review a product or service or say good things about it. Many will acknowledge that; many won't. Many will say good things regardless because they got something free; many will be honest and give you an accurate review. Be careful with influencers. Treat them as you would anyone else and ask "by what authority?" I often read about TikTok challenges that encourage people to do really stupid things. "Hey, break open that Tide Pod and suck it back real fast while tapping the beat to "Let it be" with your foot and it will act as an aphrodisiac! Good night, sirs!" [I just made that up - or at least I hope I did. Please don't anyone do this.] Don't do stupid shit because someone "dared" you or you think it will make you TikTok famous or something. Think before you act.


The problem with some of these so-called challenges and influencers is that they often have incredible reach. Many people follow them or share the challenges for any number of reasons. It may make the challenge or the influencer appear more popular than it actually it. Please don't equate "popularity" with "credibility." Not.The.Same.


To recap: Authority is one element to consider when deciding if something is truthful or not. Trust is also important and helps to lend credibility to the authority. Influencers should be treated as you would any other authority. In coming issues, I will unpack other elements.

Stay curious. (but don't do stupid shit)

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