The rise of the ‘Super Distruster’ is a major challenge for communicators
Nearly one-third (29%) of UK adults are “Super Distrusters”, who believe the country is going in the wrong direction, our institutions have been corrupted, and that this is the fault of self-serving, hostile and incompetent elites, according to Wave 6 of MHP’s Polarisation Tracker – Super Distrusters vs The Elite.
This is the key finding of cluster analysis performed by Cambridge University’s Political Psychology Lab, using data from the September 2023 wave of MHP’s long-running Polarisation Tracker.
Super Distrusters’ hostility towards the system presents a big challenge for big business and government, which are regarded as the most elite and untrustworthy institutions.
Download the MHP Polarisation Tracker Wave 6 here:
Super Distrusters also pose a problem for wider policy goals, including delivering Net Zero, safeguarding public health and reducing online harms, which will all require the public to adopt and adapt to new ways of doing things. Super Distrusters are less likely to co-operate and more likely to disbelieve the case for change or the people making it.
Research findings headline news in The Sunday Times
A diverse population of 16 million people, ‘Super Distrusters’ defy all traditional political and democratic categorisation: Some worry about the enemies of growth, Marxist institutional capture, thought police, cultural erasure and ‘the new elite’. Others worry about a rapacious capitalist class, a reactionary plot against social progress, racist and misogynist police, conservative gatekeepers and ‘the old elite’.
While Super Distrusters’ specific concerns and targets vary, their analysis leads them to the same place, distrustful of traditional authority, expertise and increasingly hostile to innovation and technology, which they see as having the potential to give more power to authoritarian elites. Protests against ULEZ cameras, 15 Minute Cities and digital cash are all manifestations of these fears.
Stagnant growth, global lockdowns, vaccine mandates, rising living costs, and increased censorship have all helped to fuel public scepticism, while the Networked Age has brought with it unprecedented levels of transparency. Often, people in power have been found wanting and new ways of doing things have not delivered the progress promised.
And Super Distruster concerns reflect a wider social unease. Even among more trusting audience groups, we found that the more closely associated something or someone is with the elite, the less likely they are to be considered trustworthy.
To engage with Super Distrusters effectively, communicators must change their approach, in three important ways.
Firstly, communicators can no-longer ignore Super Distrusters.
As Coutts, the West Yorkshire Police and the National Trust have recently discovered, Super Distrusters are increasingly motivated and organised, supported by counter-elites, and listened to by politicians. Communicators need to address their strongest arguments and engage legitimate critics beyond the media bubble in order to build trust.
Secondly, tech utopianism is over.
From AI to the metaverse, communicators should encourage more open debate about risks and safeguards, rather than casting critics as luddites. Technology storytelling needs to emphasise individual empowerment rather than systemic efficiency.
And finally, institutions must become more comfortable holding each other to account.
In the era of stakeholder capitalism, collaboration replaces competition among government, business, media, and civil society. However, to those sceptical of elites, this cooperation can resemble collusion, making brand purpose campaigns seem like social engineering. Super Distrusters see a monolithic managerial class and believe the media and NGOs prioritize holding the public accountable over the powerful. Even if people disagree with M&S on the fate of Oxford Street or BMW on the EU’s electric vehicle strategy, they welcome these arguments being aired in the open.
Brands that are more transparent about their motives, and challenge government on behalf of the consumer will reap dividends.
Coming soon – We will be launching companion guides to the consequences found in the MHP Polarisation Tracker for three key areas: Net Zero, Finance and Science and Technology.
By Nick Barron
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