Tech Loses Its Halo

By Richard Edelman, CEO

Technology has been the leading sector in trust since we began the Edelman Trust Barometer 21 years ago. In fact, as of 2012, there was a 30-point gap between technology and business in general (77 percent versus 47 percent). Since that time, trust in business has risen while trust in technology has declined, so that the gap is now under ten points (68 percent for tech, 59 percent for business in general) – a finding that runs contrary to the stunning performance of tech companies in the stock market and our collective reliance on technology to power remote work and e-commerce.

After an initial surge during the spring lockdown in 2020, the technology sector has lost ground especially in the past six months, with double-digit declines in important markets such as China (-16 percent), Canada (-15 percent), the U.S. (-13 percent) and the UK (-12 percent). Trust in technology has reached all-time lows in 17 of 27 markets. Globally, trust in technology dropped six points, leaving it still in the number one position but barely ahead of manufacturing and healthcare.

We observe a significant divide in trust in technology between developed and developing markets. Technology has now fallen below 60 percent trust for the first time in the U.S., France, Japan, and the UK. Meanwhile, technology retains its high trust position in such developing markets as Indonesia, India, China, and Mexico.

In the U.S., technology is now the ninth most trusted sector, dropping from the top position last year. Food & beverage and healthcare now occupy the top two spots in the U.S. ranking.

Helping drive this decline in trust is fear of job loss. The pandemic has taken millions of jobs in the service sectors, especially in travel, tourism and restaurants. Now the question is whether these jobs come back. Eighty-four percent of respondents say they are worried about losing their job, with over half saying they worry about companies replacing them with robots or AI. Nearly half of all employees say job skills training is now more important (44 points higher) than it was at the start of the year.

One important change since mid-year is a decline in willingness to share personal data to fight the pandemic. During the height of the pandemic, there was a predisposition to give up personal health and location tracing data to government to help control the spread of the disease. Now barely more than half are willing to do so, with substantial drops in Mexico (-12 percent) and China (-18 percent) and low numbers in France and Japan (39 percent and 34 percent respectively).

Tech employees are more convinced than ever about their ability to change corporate strategy in line with their values. Fifty-nine percent of tech employees said that they are now more likely than a year ago to engage in workplace protests if they disagree with a corporate policy. Their desire for the employer to be a trustworthy source of information is strong, at 68 percent, and tech employees’ wish for the option of continued remote work has increased dramatically (+42 points).

The tech industry is now being held to account for all manner of societal ills, from information bankruptcy, to job loss, to human rights, to the mass-class divide. Some of its star players are regularly called before Congress to testify and commit to change.

The operative question is how the sector can and should respond. There are the easy solutions such as committing to a more diverse management and workforce. The harder part is to take accountability for what they enable their customers to do, in replacing humans with machines and using data to change behavior. It is also inadvisable for tech companies to avoid the mainstream media by starting their own media companies. Government becomes a necessary partner in establishing a playing field and acting as referee.

The theory of libertarianism is now proven to be a failure; it is in the interest of the tech sector to hold itself to account in a most transparent manner.