Opinion

Isn't stretching the truth inevitable in politics? Maybe. But we've lost our ability to trust

Our society is being undermined by a decline in trust, caused by online discourse that fuels paranoia

Daniel Freeman, Professor of Clinical Psychology, pictured at Trinity College, Oxford. Photographer: Jason Alden

A dubious milestone was reached at the end of January: the one thousandth fact check of a statement by Donald Trump undertaken by the website Politifact. Trump’s thousandth claim? That the Democrats had “used Covid to cheat” in the 2020 election. 

Meanwhile in the UK, the charity Full Fact reported that 50 MPs, including two prime ministers, cabinet and shadow cabinet ministers, declined to correct false, unevidenced or misleading claims in 2022. The
statistics regulator had to write to the government at least 10 times to challenge it on its use of statistics or other data. 

As election year grinds on in both the US and UK, we can expect much more of this sort of thing. Does it matter? Isn’t playing fast and loose with the facts an inevitable part of politics?  

Maybe, but there are signs that we’re facing a widespread crisis of trust. It seems that many of us – understandably – aren’t certain who to believe. Who is telling the truth and who is lying? And in a world of ‘alternative facts’ and 24/7 social media, how do we judge?  

If we’re unsure who to trust, we’re more likely to go with our gut feelings. And some of those gut feelings can be pretty alarming. I discovered this first hand in 2020. In the Oxford Coronavirus Explanations, Attitudes, and Narratives Survey (OCEANS), we asked 2,500 adults in England for their views on the Covid-19 pandemic. The extent of conspiracy thinking astonished me.  

One in five people, for example, considered it possible that the virus had been created by Jews to destroy the global economy. And almost a quarter endorsed to some degree the proposition that “the vaccine will contain microchips to control people”. Almost 40% thought that lockdown might be an excuse to impose mass surveillance. 

On a personal level, paranoid thinking is when we incorrectly view others as deliberately trying to harm us. Habitual mistrust can be stressful and frightening. It warps our sense of the world around us. We see other people primarily as potential threats. We lose the ability to accurately estimate danger.  

When I surveyed a representative group of over 10,000 UK adults last year, approximately one in five people were having regular suspicious thoughts, with 5-8% experiencing strong paranoia. For example, 27% said they somewhat or totally believed that someone wanted to hurt them; 27% that there was a conspiracy against them and 30% that it was difficult to stop thinking about people wanting to make them feel bad. They were often very aware that their fears had spun out of control – 17% wanted help to be more trusting of other people, with another 38.7% saying they might want help. 

From a social perspective, mistrust can be equally undesirable. It’s highly divisive, encouraging us to see others as adversaries rather than fellow citizens. On a practical level, mistrust undermines collective responses to problems. This was amply demonstrated during the Covid-19 pandemic. People who mistrusted the scientific evidence were much less likely to follow guidance around social distancing, mask wearing and vaccination – thereby putting themselves and others at risk.  

But we can’t simply blame sloganeering politicians and the internet echo chamber for our worryingly high rates of mistrust. Research shows that these beliefs are more common in, though certainly not confined to, people who are socially disadvantaged. (Rates of inequality, of course, have been climbing in the UK for decades.) Mistrust thrives on feelings of vulnerability. It is rooted in anxiety about what the future holds. 

People who are marginalised in our society are more likely to face adversity – for example, poverty, ill health, and discrimination – and less well placed to cope with it. If you’re constantly facing hardship, it’s unsurprising if your trust in other people weakens.  

It’s true, of course, that not everyone has our best interests at heart. Some threats, obviously, are real. We shouldn’t blindly accept whatever we’re told by those in authority. Neither should we ignore real threats to our personal safety. At times we are right to be wary of other people. Every day we must decide whether to trust other people. It’s not always easy: reading other people’s intentions is a tricky business. Paranoia is when we get those judgements clearly wrong. 

So how do we put things right? How can we build appropriate levels of trust, with regards both to the people we meet in our day-to-day lives and society at large? These are hugely complex problems – which means no easy solutions. But we’ll get nowhere until we take them seriously.

We urgently need to talk about trust: its importance, the forces that undermine it and the measures we can take to restore it. Because our wellbeing – personal and collective – depends much less on suspicion than it does on the readiness to trust. 

Paranoia: A Psychologist’s Journey into Extreme Mistrust and Anxiety by Daniel Freeman is out now (William Collins, £25).

You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!
If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
When it comes to poverty prevention it's minds we must change – before anything else
John Bird

When it comes to poverty prevention it's minds we must change – before anything else

Alex Sobel MP: 'We need a serious, long-term and science-led plan to tackle climate emergency'
Alex Sobel MP
Earth Day

Alex Sobel MP: 'We need a serious, long-term and science-led plan to tackle climate emergency'

No one wants to host 2026 Commonwealth Games. What if Glasgow had another go? 
Paul McNamee

No one wants to host 2026 Commonwealth Games. What if Glasgow had another go? 

Austerity has pushed young homeless people to back of queue for help. The government must act
Centrepoint on youth homelessness
Dr Tom Kerridge

Austerity has pushed young homeless people to back of queue for help. The government must act

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know