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'We're facing an infodemic:' Survey finds eroding trust threatens vaccine rollout

Eroding trust in scientists, CEOs and journalists could hamper the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine in Canada, according to a new survey that links vaccine hesitancy with poor "information hygiene.

Eroding trust in scientists, CEOs and journalists could hamper the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine in Canada, according to a new survey that links vaccine hesitancy with poor "information hygiene."

The survey released Wednesday by communications firm Edelman found that trust in scientists was down six points compared with last year's survey, while trust in academic experts declined 16 points, CEOs fell five points and journalists edged down four points.

It also found that half of Canadians said business leaders are purposely trying to mislead people by saying things they know are false, while 46 per cent say government leaders are doing the same.

"This is a wake-up call," said Lisa Kimmel, chair and CEO of Edelman Canada. "CEOs aren't meeting the expectations that society has for them ... and we need to do better."

Business leaders have to communicate and lead with fact-based information but also empathy and understanding, she said. 

"What made for a successful CEO in the past has changed," Kimmel said, noting that leaders have to be better listeners and collaborators. "They have a much more expanded mandate."

The survey underscores a growing struggle around trusted information and credible sources during a global pandemic. 

It found that only one in five Canadians has good "information hygiene," which includes engaging with news, avoiding information echo chambers, verifying information and not amplifying unvetted information. 

The firm found that poor information hygiene was linked to vaccine hesitancy, potentially threatening the country's pandemic recovery if too few Canadians seek vaccinations.

For example, the survey said about 73 per cent of Canadians with good information hygiene are willing to vaccinate within a year, compared to 59 per cent with poor information hygiene – a vaccination gap of 14 points. 

Altogether, the report found 66 per cent of Canadians say they are willing to be vaccinated within the year, falling below the level needed to achieve herd immunity.

"We're not just facing a pandemic. We're facing an infodemic," Kimmel said, referring to the impact of an abundance of misinformation and disinformation related to the pandemic that threatens to undermine responses and measures to control COVID-19. 

Yet she pointed to one bright spot in the survey that found 76 per cent of Canadians trust their employer – more than they trust government and all types of media. 

"When we asked respondents about what kind of communication they find most believable, 'my employer' came out on top," Kimmel said. "That's a privileged position that employers have and it will be central and critical to convincing people around the need to get vaccinated."

Meanwhile, the survey found that despite the pandemic, Canadians were most worried about job losses, followed by cyber attacks and climate change. 

Only about 60 per cent of Canadians are worried about contracting the coronavirus, while half worry about losing freedoms in a year of lockdowns and stay-at-home orders. 

The 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer is based on online surveys with 1,500 Canadians last fall. 

According to the polling industry’s generally accepted standards, online surveys cannot be assigned a margin of error because they do not randomly sample the population.

Follow Brett Bundale on Twitter @bbundale.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 17, 2021.

Brett Bundale, The Canadian Press

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