Tag Archives: trust

Social Capital And Covid-19

Until I entered academic life, I was unfamiliar with the concept of social capital. Human capital is more easily understood; it refers to the skills and knowledge of a given individual. Social capital, on the other hand, refers to the positive and negative qualities of networks, of our human connections to others.

There are two types of social capital: bonding and bridging. Bonding social capital occurs within families, clans and associations such as churches and fraternal organizations, where members–those considered “one of us”–are nurtured and supported. Bridging social capital, on the other hand, fosters relationships between otherwise unrelated groups or individuals who benefit from the networks’ trust, reciprocity, information, and cooperation.

The relationships that characterize  bonding social capital are sometimes referred to as thick, even tribal. The connections formed by bridging social capital are considered thinner, but given the increasing diversity of the American population, bridging social capital is critically important.

Scholarly and media attention to these connections within human societies has grown since the theories were first advanced in the mid-twentieth century, and I was intrigued by an August article in The New Yorker that investigated the connection between COVID-19 transmission and  bridging social capital. 

Now, all general truths about the pandemic are premature. But the empirical results so far seem at least to suggest an intriguing paradox: that places with a great deal of social capital got hit worst by the virus, and then recovered fastest. This is reportedly the case with the secular, social-democratic countries of the European Union, none of them particularly religious, but many of them rich in shared networks of trust.

Evidently, the research showed that people in places who were not socially distanced at the start of the plague–but places with significant amounts of social trust– had an easier time learning to social-distance by its end.

Translated from the academese, people who are used to going out a lot stopped when people they trusted told them that doing so was a good way to get sick. That’s a process familiar to New Yorkers. Cursed by our density and our place as a cosmopolitan crossroads to suffer worst from the plague, our capacity for self-regulation under rational government direction has moved us dramatically forward, or, rather, downward. We had, through nearly all of April, above a twenty-per-cent positive-testing rate; now, by living behind our masks and (mostly) staying out of bars, we have driven the number below one per cent.

 As the author points out, social trust is “earned and banked” over many years of trustworthy governance.

In America, we have been undergoing a kind of four-year experiment in what happens to a country when social trust and social capital are not merely badly maintained but actively corroded…. We have been living a four-year exercise in destroying social trust and replacing it with gangster values: loyalty to the capo at all costs, and vengeance on his competitors and enemies taken at his direction. Instead of converging on obvious truths—the limited but real values of mask-wearing, the confidence that quack cures won’t solve the problem, the necessity of vigilant watchfulness—we are told every day that all empirical arguments are merely, well, masks for clan rivalry.

The results are already clear. The rush to reopen in the so-called red states was motivated partly by commercial impatience but also largely by a kind of irrational rage at the “élitist” social networks that depend on the diffusion of scientific expertise. If instructed that scientific medicine is one more opinion on the spectrum of political grievance, then social distancing and mask-wearing become, like gun control, an imposition on liberty.

Bottom line: the social connections that characterize bridging social capital rely upon trust and reciprocity–and reciprocity itself requires trust. The constant lies of the Trump Administration, the escalating propaganda of right-wing media sources and the dramatic upsurge in conspiracy theories have combined to dangerously erode our levels of public trust–and that trust is absolutely essential, not just to the effective control of a pandemic, but to all social functioning.

The erosion of bridging social capital may explain why so many Americans have retreated into the bonding comforts of their tribal affiliations.

But bonding social capital–nurturing and supportive as it can be- rests on an “us versus them” worldview, and that’s absolutely the last thing we need right now.

 

Trust Tells Us A Lot

As our social distancing drags on, researchers have been investigating the effects on social solidarity–how Americans view each other, and especially, any changes in the level of “social trust.” In this context, social trust is an indicator of what sociologists and political scientists call social capital.

The bad news is that, thanks to the ineptitude and constant and pathetically obvious lies from the Trump administration, trust in the federal government is very low. (Recent example: Israeli news reports revealed that U.S. Intelligence told Israel and NATO in November  about the threat posed by the coronavirus– contradicting Pentagon claims that no such report existed.)

The good news is that a couple of recent surveys have found improvement in the way Americans view each other. In that sense, it’s reminiscent of the change in attitudes triggered by the Great Depression. Suddenly, the very American (and arguably Calvinist) view that people are poor because they are morally defective–lazy or unmotivated–was replaced by recognition that poverty is largely a social phenomenon. (If there are no jobs, its harder to blame people for not having them.)

Social capital is the label we give to our memberships in social networks–the human relationships within which we are embedded. Trust is an important component of social capital–but so is reciprocity. Scholars define social capital as the institutionalized expectation that other people will reciprocate co-operative behaviors–the recognition that If we fail to work together when collective efforts are needed, we all become poorer.

There are two kinds of social capital: bonding and bridging. Bonding social capital is possible only with shared identity (however identity is defined). It’s at the heart of tribalism: “I belong to this group, and I look with suspicion/disdain at those who don’t.” Bridging social capital, which has been in short supply recently, links people across cleavages that typically divide us (race, class, or religion). Its associations create ‘bridges’ between communities.

The surveys that suggest a growth in “generalized social trust” are encouraging because they hold out the hope that America may be restoring some of its lost bridging social capital.

I was reminded of the importance of trust and bridging social capital when I was cleaning out cabinets in my home office. (I don’t know how other people cope, but stress tends to turn me into a maniacal cleaning machine.) I came across a reprint of “SPEA Insights” –a PR publication we used to put out, highlighting faculty research. This one was from July of 2010; titled “Trust Me, Said the Spider,” it was focused on the then-recent publication of my book Distrust, American Style.

In it, I pointed out that trust in social institutions–especially but not exclusively government–is absolutely essential to contemporary life.

Think about it. We deposit our paychecks and take for granted that the funds will be there when we need to draw them out; we pay the electric bill and expect the lights to turn on when we throw the switch; we order a gizmo from Amazon or other Internet merchant and are confident the gizmo will be delivered. We go to our local grocery and buy a chicken, confident that we won’t have to individually test it for e coli when we get home.

On and on….

And–as I argued in that paper– Americans rely on government to ensure that our water is drinkable, our air breathable, our aircraft flyable, and so much more.

I was particularly struck by my own words from 2010:

“And when we go through a period when government is inept or corrupt, that confidence is shaken–but our skepticism and distrust affect more than just the political system. Trust in government sets the tone for confidence in all social institutions….From time to time, America goes through periods where the failures of our civic and governing institutions are so manifest that awareness of them is simply inescapable. In the era of the Internet, the amount of information received by even the most “low information” voters has been enormously amplified. When I wrote Distrrust, the American public was positively marinating in news of corruption and incompetence.”

That was 2010. Ten years ago. I’d say we’re pretty thoroughly marinated now.

The last sentence of that essay is truer today than ever, in the wake of this pandemic: “our first order of business must be the restoration of transparency, accountability and trustworthiness of our government.”

No kidding.

Measles, Lies And Politics

In our politically polarized country, it’s tempting to see arguments about the efficacy of medical interventions like vaccines as examples of “non-political arguments.” True, the less-kind among us (I plead guilty) tend to view “anti-vax” parents as deranged left-wing versions of rightwing conspiracy theorists, or less judgmentally, arguably sane but credulous people who haven’t had access to accurate information. We don’t, however, see this particular controversy as a particularly political argument.

A recent, very thoughtful article in The New Yorker disagrees, calling the measles vaccine a “quintessentially political issue.”

Vaccination is a basic political issue, because it is the subject of community agreement. When a high-enough percentage of community members are immunized, a disease can be effectively vanquished. In epidemiological terms, this is known as “herd immunity,” which cannot be maintained below a certain threshold. When enough people reject the community agreement, they endanger the rest. Willfully unvaccinated adults and children can spread diseases to those who cannot be vaccinated or haven’t been vaccinated, such as infants and people with a compromised immune system; these vulnerable populations would probably be safe in conditions of herd immunity. Vaccination and the refusal to vaccinate are political acts: individual decisions that affect others and the very ability of people to inhabit common spaces.

The author cites evidence that a majority of anti-vaxxers are educated white people who have ample access to credible public-health information and scientific studies about vaccination. Much like those who refuse to believe that climate change is real, they simply choose to reject the science; they choose not to believe the medical consensus. As Frank Bruni recently wrote in the New York Times,

Their recklessness and the attendant re-emergence of measles aren’t just a public health crisis. They’re a public sanity one, emblematic of too many people’s willful disregard of evidence, proud suspicion of expertise and estrangement from reason.

The irrationality triggered by anti-vaccination propaganda is yet another example of the current raging conflict between facts and lies in America–a conflict exacerbated by social media. According to the author of the article in The New Yorker, there are even some reports that Russian trolls have been exploiting anti-vax fears as part of the Russian effort to use disinformation to splinter American public opinion.

What would cause well-educated parents to believe that the entire scientific and medical community is lying to them about the risks of vaccination?

The article attributes this reaction to current levels of public distrust–distrust of authority, of government, and especially of a complex, overly-expensive, profit-driven medical system that has few incentives for robust public-health interventions.

The solution to under-vaccination lies not in getting the right kind of information and messaging to the “vaccine-hesitant” but in changing the politics of health care. Political agreement is unlikely among partners who do not trust each other, and near impossible when one side is explicitly profiting from the other. The American health-care system is ill-suited to protect public health, because a profit-driven industry cannot serve as the guardian of public good.

It’s hard for people to trust the credibility of pharmaceutical companies when those companies are jacking up the price of insulin and other life-saving drugs.

The role of trust is something to consider as lawmakers debate the pros and cons of “Medicare-for-All” and  universal systems like those in place in most other modern countries.

 

As If We Needed Another Looming Threat

If I didn’t have a platform bed, I’d just crawl under my bed and hide.

I’m frantic about the elections. I’m depressed about climate change and our government’s unwillingness to confront it. The last issue of The Atlantic had several lengthy stories about technologies that will disrupt our lives and could conceivably end them. (Did you know that the government is doing research on the “weaponizing” of our brains? That Alexa is becoming our best friend and confidant?)

And now there’s “Deepfakes.”

Senator Ben Sasse (you remember him–he talks a great game, but then folds like a Swiss Army knife and votes the GOP party line) has written a truly terrifying explanation of what’s on the horizon.

Flash forward two years and consider these hypotheticals. You’re seated at your desk, having taken your second sip of coffee and just beginning to contemplate the breakfast sandwich steaming in the bag in front of you. You click on your favorite news site, one you trust. “Unearthed Video Shows President Conspiring with Putin.” You can’t resist.

The video, in ultrahigh definition, shows then-presidential candidate Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin examining an electoral map of the United States. They are nodding and laughing as they appear to discuss efforts to swing the election to Trump. Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump smile wanly in the background. The report notes that Trump’s movements on the day in question are difficult to pin down.

Alternate scenario: Same day, same coffee and sandwich. This time, the headline reports the discovery of an audio recording of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch brainstorming about how to derail the FBI investigation of Clinton’s use of a private server to handle classified emails. The recording’s date is unclear, but its quality is perfect; Clinton and Lynch can be heard discussing the attorney general’s airport tarmac meeting with former president Bill Clinton in Phoenix on June 27, 2016.

The recordings in these hypothetical scenarios are fake — but who are you going to believe? Who will your neighbors believe? The government? A news outlet you distrust?

Sasse writes that these Deepfakes — defined as seemingly authentic video or audio recordings — are likely to send American politics into an even deeper tailspin, and he warns that Washington isn’t paying nearly enough attention to them. (Well, of course not. The moral midgets who run our government have power to amass, and a public to fleece–that doesn’t leave them time or energy to address the actual issues facing us.)

Consider: In December 2017, an amateur coder named “DeepFakes” was altering porn videos by digitally substituting the faces of female celebrities for the porn stars’. Not much of a hobby, but it was effective enough to prompt news coverage. Since then, the technology has improved and is readily available. The word deepfake has become a generic noun for the use of machine-learning algorithms and facial-mapping technology to digitally manipulate people’s voices, bodies and faces. And the technology is increasingly so realistic that the deepfakes are almost impossible to detect.

Creepy, right? Now imagine what will happen when America’s enemies use this technology for less sleazy but more strategically sinister purposes.

I’m imagining. And you’ll forgive me if I find Sasse’s solution–Americans have to stop distrusting each other–pretty inadequate, if not downright fanciful. On the other hand, I certainly don’t have a better solution to offer.

Maybe if I lose weight I can squeeze under that platform bed…..

Why Trust Matters

In 2009, I wrote a book titled Distrust, American Style. In it, I looked at the issue of trust through the lens of social capital scholarship. Trust and reciprocity are essential to social capital–and especially to the creation of “bridging” social capital, the relationships that allow us to connect with and value people different from ourselves.

I didn’t address an issue that I now see as critical: the intentional production of distrust.

Today’s propagandists learned a valuable tactic from Big Tobacco. For many years, as health professionals insisted that smoking was harmful, Big Tobacco responded brilliantly. Rather than flatly disputing the validity of the claim, a response that would have invited people to take sides and decide who they trusted, their doctors or tobacco manufacturers,  they trotted out their own well-paid “scientists” to claim that the research was still inconclusive, that “we just don’t know what medical science will ultimately conclude.”

In other words, they sowed confusion–while giving people who didn’t want to believe that smoking was harmful something to hang their hat on. If “we don’t really know…,” then why  stop smoking? Just wait for a definitive answer.

It is a tactic that has since been adopted by several interest groups, most notably the fossil fuel industry. Recognizing that– as ice shelves melted and oceans rose– few would believe a flat denial that climate change is real and occurring, they focused their disinformation efforts on creating confusion about what was causing the globe to warm. Thus their insistence that the scientific “jury” was still out, that the changes visible to everyone might be part of natural historical cycles, and especially that there wasn’t really consensus among climate scientists. (Ninety-seven percent isn’t everyone!)

The goal was to sow doubt among all us non-scientists. Who and what should we believe?

Now, as information about Russia’s interference with the 2016 election is emerging, it is becoming apparent that Russian operatives, too, made effective use of that strategy. In addition to exacerbating American racial and religious divisions, Russian bots relentlessly cast doubt on the accuracy of traditional media reporting. Taking a cue from Sarah Palin and her ilk, they portrayed the “lamestream” media as a cesspool of liberal bias.

In fact, the GOP’s right wing has been employing this tactic for years–through Fox, Hannity, Limbaugh and a variety of others, the Republican party has engaged in a steady attack on the very notion of objective fact. That attack reached its apogee with Donald Trump’s insistence that any reporting he doesn’t like is “Fake News.”

Both the Republican and Democratic bases have embraced the belief that inconvenient facts are simply untrue, that reality is whatever they choose to believe. (Granted, this is far more prevalent on the Right, but there’s plenty of evidence that the fringe Left does the same thing.)

The rest of us are left in an uncomfortable gray area, increasingly unsure of the veracity of the items that fill our Facebook and Twitter feeds. It’s bad enough that years of Republican propaganda have convinced the GOP base that credible outlets like the New York Times and Washington Post have “libtard agendas,” but thanks to the explosion of new media outlets made possible by the Internet, even those of us who are trying to access accurate, objective reporting are inundated with “news” from unfamiliar sources, many of which are reliable and many of which are not. The result is insecurity–is this true? Has that been report verified? By whom? What should I believe? Who can I trust?

Zealots don’t worry about the accuracy of the information they act on, but rational people who distrust their facts tend to be paralyzed.

And that, of course, is the goal.