Survey spanning 40 countries reveals how officials are failing to keep up with changes in way voters gather information and form opinions
© Richard Drew/AP
Social media, such as Twitter, have created an echo chamber of information than can filter out opposing views and commentary.
Weakened and distrusted central governments around the world have been incapable of responding to the way the internet and social media have empowered populist but previously fringe groups, a unique worldwide survey of government communication chiefs has found.

The survey spanning 40 countries is the first international review to reveal how deeply governments feel they are losing control and authority over communications.

It shows they have been collectively shaken by public distrust of governments, and are struggling to keep pace with how modern voters gather information and form their opinions. The advent of fake news, the dissemination of knowingly inaccurate news, has only deepened the crisis.

The study synthesising the responses of more than 300 communication chiefs was undertaken by the advertising and strategy group WPP and steered by a global advisory board spanning Australia, Europe, Asia and America, including leading academics and practitioners in communications, business and the public sector. Prof Ngaire Woods, dean of the Blavatnik school of government at Oxford University, contributed from the UK.

The shrinking of the centre's power and its inability to communicate effectively has fuelled populism, radicalisation and extremism, the survey finds.

"When people feel ignored, unheard and unrepresented they turn to alternative sources of information. If governments do not communicate with citizens properly, citizens will go somewhere elsewhere for information," the report says.

The study, entitled Leader's Report: The Future of Government Communications, finds "the internet has loosened government's historical and collective grip on trust. It has transformed the role of government as providers of information. Social media has created an echo chamber of information than can filter out opposing views and commentary.

"It has created a sense that all information's free and equal. Citizens find it increasingly easy to communicate with one another, helping once marginalised groups create vocal and powerful social organisations. The technology has fractured audiences and enabled misinformation to be corroborated by anonymous users and politicians alike at ever increasing speeds."

It adds: "Extreme views can appear more mainstream when algorithms amplify them and reflect them back to others with similar views."

Despite this glut of information, the communication managers claim the public feel "more apprehensive than perhaps at any time since the end of the cold war". The report suggests that "citizens are more powerful than ever in terms of unlimited access to information and can garner support on issues from like-minded individuals faster than the speed with which even the nimblest administration can respond. They have more up-to-date tech than most governments."

The communication chiefs also admit they lack capacity in terms of skills and numbers to be able to connect with citizens, and move to a form of meaningful two-way communication. By contrast governments appear inward-looking and policy-focused.

Changes to the media, noticeably the rise of social media, have led to a shrinking of the centre. Groups can establish themselves effectively in opposition to government with very few resources. Such groups do not require the checks and balances that governments need to go through before they respond.

One result the study suggests is a more combative relationship between sections of the public and governments.

In seeking solutions, the WPP study claims governments face a long haul, but can only respond by being more, not less open, and by providing real-time access to government and those who govern. It suggests they need to do more to distinguish between politicised and government information, and switch from a reliance on mass uniform broadcasting to a more personalised segmented communication.

The survey group admits its colleagues in government are not citizen-focused, with only a quarter saying the voice of the citizen is taken into account in key decisions.

They complain that communications are seen as little more than a final car wash, the tail end that polishes up a policy that has been produced away from the public or any citizen engagement.