Innovation has powered trust in technology for years. But as our 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer Special Report: Trust in Technology demonstrates, cracks are starting to show as geopolitics prove inescapable, developing and developed markets drift apart, and the sector’s executive leadership appears to be disconnected from the public.

Yes, tech is doing well, relatively speaking. It’s still the most trusted sector in business, with a recent trust bump after a period of turbulence. But the situation has grown more complex, amid economic crosswinds, shifting mandates, and changes in the very definition of technology.

That’s the message in our data: The challenge of trust in tech companies isn’t due to the failure of technology, but a failure to deliver on people’s expectations for societal impact and responsible leadership.

That’s the message in our data: The challenge of trust in tech companies isn’t due to the failure of technology, but a failure to deliver on people’s expectations for societal impact and responsible leadership.

What it means to be a leader in technology needs to be updated. Here’s what it would look like.

The geographic split

Mapping technology’s place in the world has become more complicated. In October, trust in tech globally was the highest of any sector, but that fact obscures the finding that tech’s global leadership is waning. Tech was the most-trusted sector in 20 of 22 markets surveyed in 2016, but in January of this year it held the top spot in just 11 markets. Even more striking is that the world is splitting in two in its appraisal of the tech sector. Developing markets, including tech powerhouses India and China, continue to place their trust in the tech industry. In contrast, developed markets are increasingly souring on the promises of the tech sector, with half a dozen developed markets exhibiting double digit drops in trust in tech since 2012. The United States alone has seen a whopping 24-point decline over the past decade, with tech losing trust across demographics.

Nationalism may be playing some part in that, as respondents from all developed countries surveyed distrust foreign-headquartered tech companies. Those who distrust companies based in foreign countries most commonly say that it's the governments or data policies in those countries that drive their distrust, rather than the products or services on offer. Regardless of location, however, technology concerns loom large: Globally, nearly three-quarters of respondents (73%, on average) are worried about their data privacy and over 70 percent worry about cybersecurity (71%, on average).

Technology is very much linked to geopolitics, instead of the neutral platform many may have thought it would be.

A shift in what “tech” means

All this should raise concern for tech leaders. In the past, many may have reassured themselves that their business was not affected by consumers’ declining opinions of tech, chalking it up to consumers’ growing distaste for social media. While social media does suffer from a lack of trust — less than half of respondents say they trust businesses in the industry — it would be a mistake to view social media as a separate entity from tech. When asked what types of companies are included when they think of "tech companies,” more than 90% of those surveyed pointed to digital applications and/or social media.

In the mind of the consumer, what constitutes “tech” is expansive, reflecting how technology is embedded in the way we conduct business, engage in commerce, and connect with the people in our lives.

Where is the oversight?

In recent years, governments around the world have become uncomfortable with the amount of power tech firms can wield and have sought greater regulation to break up perceived monopolies, deal with hateful content, and root out misinformation.

Interestingly, our study does not suggest people see this regulation as the solution. In fact, most respondents agree that government regulators are not knowledgeable enough to regulate emerging tech effectively (56%). Similarly, 53% of respondents, on average, don’t trust platforms to regulate their own content. Add it up and there’s a perceived vacuum of power when it comes to managing what tech firms do.

Preserving tech’s continued trust leadership

Strong majorities across the world believe that technological innovations can solve urgent societal challenges such as economic competitiveness (75%) and access to healthcare (75%). And even with fears of AI making certain human jobs obsolete, employees across sectors agree that technology is having an overall positive impact on the workplace. Most people believe technology enables more meaningful work and allows people with disabilities or care responsibilities to find jobs.

The impediment to higher trust in the tech sector thus appears to be not business or product performance, nor technology itself. Instead, respondents point to a need for broader engagement with the world at large on significant societal issues and bridging inequality. Less than half of respondents say tech companies are doing well when it comes to data security and privacy (45%, on average), along with the treatment and diversity of their employees (47%, on average) and efforts to reduce their climate impact (41%). What’s more, respondents feel their friends and family and workplace IT support are more credible sources of truth on technology than tech industry experts.

But tech leaders can address all these issues: Our data shows that those with even a small amount of knowledge on autonomous tech are more likely, on average, to say this technology will have positive impacts on society than those with almost no knowledge. Trust in emerging technology sectors is especially high in developing markets, providing opportunities for growth. Tech leaders are also perfectly placed to provide reliable information to the overall public, from the ground up, through honest internal communication and by involving thought leaders among their staff. Finally, it is within tech leaders’ power to play fair — by paying their fair share of taxes, paying employees good wages, and being prepared to reskill workers.

Tech has shown its capacity for great change. It is up to tech leaders to prove that this change is for the better and ever more inclusive.

Sanjay Nair is Global Technology Chair.