Tech is No longer the most trusted sector in 13 markets globally - a new record.

Trust: one of the easiest things to lose and one of the most difficult to win back. Over the years, the tech industry, especially social media companies, have been dealing with “techlash” – a word so applicative it came in second for the Oxford Dictionary’s 2018 Word of the Year.

Although building trust has become a top priority for most companies their efforts are falling short of stakeholder expectations. The 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer Special Report: Trust in Technology reveals that trust in tech globally is down 4 percent YOY, with the largest declines in:

  • France: 10 percent 
  • Canada, Italy, Russia, Singapore: 8 percent
  • U.S.: 7 percent
  • Australia: 6 percent

The trust gap may be small (now), but it is reflective of consistent concerns around regulation, retraining and the societal impact of innovation. In short, tech’s halo effect is fading, and the sector is losing its trust advantage at a time when new technologies could put more doubts in the minds of stakeholders if the impact of their innovations are not presented in a balanced way-transparently, competently and ethically.

Overall, 2020 Trust Barometer respondents feel that technology is spinning out of control:

  • The pace of technology is too fast: 61 percent
  • I worry technology will make it impossible to know if what people are seeing or hearing is real: 66 percent
  • Government does not understand emerging technologies enough to regulate them effectively: 61 percent

The study also revealed that the technologies fueling the sector are lacking the same level of trust as the sector overall. Emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, virtual reality, Internet of Things and 5G are distrusted in key markets such as the UK, U.S., France and Germany. Fear of artificial intelligence, deep fakes, automation and other emerging technologies make for visual, consumable and sensationalized news reports.

This reality underlines the importance for companies to own their narrative and be transparent about the benefits as well as possible downsides of technologies. The data further proves the point: 54 percent of respondents said that communicating the downsides as well of emerging technology would ultimately increase their trust. An important step that companies could take is to create a code of ethics regarding their application of technology. Forty-nine percent support this strategy, showing how top-of-mind it is for consumers, and should be for tech companies.

The benefits of a trusted business are crucial and can truly determine whether your product is given the license to operate. The direct relationship between trust in a product and consumer desire for greater regulation is made apparent in the survey; only 39 percent of respondents believe trusted technologies should be regulated, while 56 percent believe that distrusted technologies should be regulated.

Trust in technology has been declining for several years and is highlighted by one significant data point: What can we trust is real? Seventy-six percent worry that “false information or fake news being used as a weapon” was agreed to 76 percent of the time – that’s a 6 percent jump since 2018.

In the current climate the zeitgeist is jittery. The Trust Barometer results show 49 percent distrust government. To bridge the trust gap, the public is looking for CEOs to speak out on major issues, at 92 percent for the general public and 95 percent for tech sector employees.

The Trust Barometer also shows the critical importance of partnerships between business and government, especially when it comes to jobs and retraining. This new “algorithm of trust” – collaboration between business, government and NGOs - is crucial for society to embrace technology as an enabler for the greater good.

This is a tech industry “legacy” story that maps back to Silicon Valley’s “it’s not a bug, it’s a feature” when explaining to the public, often poorly in the past, that once a product is launched, it’s up to the consumers to figure it out. Or viewed another way, the outcome of a series of unintended consequences.

Putting tech back at the top of the Trust Barometer will entail:

  • Explaining the good, the bad and the ugly about emerging technologies like AI, 5G and IoT
  • Embracing all stakeholders (not just shareholders)
  • Engaging and activating employees as ambassadors
  • CEOs leading from the front on issues that matter
  • Companies forming coalitions with other institutions to ensure tech benefits everyone

In a charged presidential election year, trust will be an even more valuable – and volatile – asset to not only manage, monitor and maintain, but also to leverage and nurture our social fabric and way of life.

Sanjay Nair is global chair, Technology.