Rebuilding Trust in the Age of Bots and Trolls


In today’s information environment – where our news and data are increasingly filtered through the lens of our social networks and our personal ‘echo chambers’ – it is often hard, if not impossible, to be an enlightened consumer. The ability to gather reliable information to shape an informed opinion on pressing issues is increasingly elusive and sometimes the effort to sort fact from bias can be exhausting.

Sinead Duffy

Sinead Duffy

Head of NGO Engagement at Bayer

The rise of digital communications has made this more difficult and has created a sense of anonymity that has emboldened people to engage in vitriolic conversations – creating yet another space where users no longer feel safe to express themselves for fear of retribution.

In an era where trust is globally declining – in our institutions, our leaders and our sources of information, the question is: What can we as individuals do about it? How can we begin to rebuild trust across diverse perspectives?

“The ability to be vulnerable with one another is critical”

The answer lies in creating opportunities for dialogue through meaningful engagement. How can that be achieved? There is a wealth of behavioral data in the business world that shows that having the ability to be vulnerable with one another is critical to productive human interactions. Personally, I have found that online and offline, people hesitate to speak boldly and bravely for fear of being misquoted or misconstrued.

But we desperately need to hear each other’s bold ideas, to challenge our viewpoints and to think beyond our own day-to-day realities. When we’re closed to other people’s ideas, we close off new possibilities and ways to make progress.

Why is this important? Let’s look at two examples.

In early August 2018, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that over 41,000 people have been infected with measles in the first six months of 2018, including a record rise in the number of cases in Europe. The cause? Experts attributed the spike in infections to declines in people being vaccinated.

That same month, a study published in the American Journal of Public Health revealed that "Twitter bots and Russian trolls" had fomented anti-vaccination sentiment and general confusion on the subject of vaccinations. The report found that, "Accounts masquerading as legitimate users create false equivalency, eroding public consensus on vaccination."

Also in 2018 a well-known American actress tweeted this: "Finally! Organic corn has arrived at the farmers market. Corn is one of the crops that is most sprayed with herbicides & pesticides, & is often genetically modified. Waiting for it to hit the famers market is worth it – you'll know you're not feeding your family that awful stuff!"

Never mind the sources or data – this tweet made quick traction. This actress has nearly 1 million followers on Twitter – which is over 300,000 more than the United States Department of Agriculture. That makes her a real influencer, just as capable (or possibly even more so) of shaping public perspectives on how food is grown as the scientists and government agencies who regulate these processes.

My (virtual) door is always open

So what does all that mean for a company like Bayer? What can we do to engage in dialogue and build trust?

In my experience, dialogue – centered around real, empathic, human interaction – remains at the heart of fostering trust. Recognizing this, Bayer launched a series of Table Talks in 2018, designed to bring together a diverse group of professionals with deep roots in agriculture, environmental conservation and international development.

We gathered everyone together, face-to-face, around a table with zero expectations other than to bring an open mind.

Increasingly, as we work to overcome some of the most pressing challenges facing our global society today, stakeholders from across the health, food and agriculture industries need to be prepared to open our minds and listen more actively.

So, join us. Let’s all step out of our silos. If you’re looking for a place to start, my (virtual) door is always open. What can I say? It’s the Irish hospitality in me after all.