Networks of Trust

Megatrend Four:
Networks of Trust

Kochi, India, 2019

Indian women stand shoulder to shoulder as part of a 5 million-strong, 385-mile “wall”, formed to protest against a ban on women entering Kerala’s Sabarimala temple, a popular Hindu pilgrimage site.

The early 21st century has been marked by an extraordinary transfer of power to social media, beyond anything the creators of the internet and initially envisaged. As the cost of the means of production in publishing has fallen close to zero, so everyone has become a publisher. It is only 15 years since Facebook was created, but its impact – and that of its competitor platforms – upon human behavior has few precedents in the history of technology.

As the open-source champion Eric S. Raymond wrote in his prophetic book The Cathedral and the Bazaar (1999), trust is no longer based upon authority, deference or records-of-service, but the brutally capricious force of peer-to-peer (P2P) opinion: Amazon reviews, Deliveroo ratings, the trashing of restaurant reputations on Yelp.

More importantly, a global ecosystem of informal recommendation and condemnation now fizzes furiously around the clock on public and private social networks. Scrutiny never sleeps.

In 2017 Uber was fortunate to survive a viral video of its co-founder, Travis Kalanick, behaving obnoxiously in one of the company’s cars – and still struggles with its reputation as a rapacious corporation that believes the power of convenience it offers to passengers excuses it from normal ethical codes and social norms. Trust, in other words, is no longer a great marble edifice but a network of a billion flashing lights – changing color with pitiless speed. This puts businesses, political parties, and other public-facing organizations in a position that is permanently precarious.

The essence of survival and success is to start from first principles and to take nothing for granted. The CEO, party leader, or editor must ask: what are the systems of digital credibility that I must put in place to deserve anyone’s trust at all?

Such systems are already under construction, though with a radical variance of pace. The old hierarchies are being replaced by systems of gatekeepers: those who accept responsibility for content, service and “community standards.” To say this is work in progress is an understatement – one need only look at Facebook’s agonizingly slow transition from anything-goes bedlam, to “community standards,” to a slow, grudging, and incomplete recognition that it is not a neutral “platform” and must accept significant responsibility for the content it hosts.

Such trust-building by companies themselves can be bolstered by kitemarking – strategies to earn the approval of independent organizations, such as fact-checking campaigns – and transparency. In the latter case, the models are food labeling and pharmaceutical regulation: to earn the trust of contemporary networks, it is essential to be honest about what goes into the product, how it is made, and what harms it can cause.

Spokesperson Credibility: Greatest Increase for Academic Experts and Employees

Percent credibility, informed public age 35-64, 16-market average, and change from 2007-2020

  • Academic expert
  • A person like yourself
  • Regular employee
  • CEO
  • Government official

Skala, Lesbos, Greece, 2015

Migrants arrive on a Turkish boat on the Greek island of Lesbos. In October, the United Nations estimated that half a million migrants had reached Greece so far that year, many fleeing the war in Syria, creating a huge burden for the locals, the Greek government and the European Union in turn.

photo: sergey ponomanrev/the new york times/redux/eyevine

In the next decade, the flash-points will be data use (what is the company doing with my personal data and what is being done with these cookies?) and cybersecurity (is my private information safe from theft and misuse?). Most contentious of all will be algorithmic transparency. This is the true black box of the digital era, and the most jealously guarded. But, as Robert Elliott Smith shows in Rage Inside the Machine (2019), the unintended bigotries and unpredictable outcomes now being driven by ultra-secret algorithms are socially unsustainable. As he writes, “more will be required than just an expectation that corporations will act on their own to regulate their algorithms towards better social outcomes.” If this means legislation, so be it.

Alongside these procedural measures, however, the role of company culture in winning the trust of networks should not be underestimated. As networks have gained power, institutions have seen it drain away. The pyramid of trust has been inverted. It was less than a decade ago that people looked to those in power not only to make policy decisions, but to explain the world we are living in and articulate a vision of the future.

The networking of trust means people have taken that responsibility into their own hands. Its most consequential expression has been the surge in activism. Whether the issue is police killings of black citizens or mass shootings in schools, whether it is the climate crisis or sexual harassment in the workplace, whether it is hyperlocal or entirely global, political movements that start with a single social media post are more powerful than official press releases. It would be nice to think that this has meant a democratizing of authority. Nice, but naive. The networking of trust has been uneven. It has put power in new hands, but it has not done so with any checks and balances. It’s not distributed that power evenly or with any accountability; it’s rewarded the shrill and the angry.

And, ironically, the technology revolution that has rewired trust has restored an ancient human instinct: trust who you know. Whether on a platform or a private social network, in your community or your workplace, you’re more likely than ever to trust people you have a personal connection with. The internet, we thought, would make the world one global village. Instead, it seems, it’s reasserted the power of the village in the world

Continued News Engagement

General population, 23-market average

How often do you engage in the following activities related to news and information?

  • The Disengaged
    Consume news less than weekly
  • Consumers
    Consume news about weekly or more
  • Amplifiers
    Consume news about weekly or more and share or post content several times a month or more

San Francisco, U.S., 2015

Same-sex marriage advocates celebrate the U.S. Supreme Court’s rulings that allow federal benefits to gay couples and clear the way for California to become the 13th state to recognise same-sex marriage.