Trust and Mistrust in Digital Societies

Un couteau n’est ni vrai ni faux, mais celui qui l’empoigne par la lame est dans l’erreur.

– René Daumal, Le Mont Analogue, chap. IV

The research project aims to study the impact of trustworthiness as a broad cross-cutting theme traversing today’s digital societies. The project does not consider modern digital technologies as an explanatory variable. Rather, it views them as having fashioned novel social realities in which age-old problems related to trust play out in different ways, with different actors, different incentive structures, different coalitions of interests, different rules, and different stakes.

The study of new technologies and traditional social theory both stand to gain insights and perspectives from each other. The advantages of this cross-pollination are apparent in the case of trust: dynamics of trust are at play in the news we read, in our political life, in our interpersonal relations, in the functioning of the economy, and in the reputation of all manner of organizations and institutions; however, the digitalization of our lives has decisively shifted the grounds of these relations of trust and mistrust. In areas central to our everyday experience, and in strategically important arenas in our societies, we cannot meaningfully speak of trust and mistrust without taking technology into consideration.

In today’s world, we can collectively know, communicate, and remember on an unprecedented scale; in such a complex, technological environment generalized social trust is indispensable. Yet, opportunities for the abuse of trust are rife, and mistrust itself can be weaponized for personal or group advantage. The questioning of trustworthiness has established itself as a default conversational norm in many aspects of life.

The project will focus on eight issue areas in contemporary society where dynamics of trustworthiness are particularly apparent in their connection with information technology:

  1. Surveillance and digital archives
  2. Information and the public sphere
  3. Organizational behavior and reputation
  4. Domestic politics and elections
  5. Comparative and international policy-making
  6. International relations and power politics
  7. Online sociability and community
  8. Political economy and visibility

In each of these issue areas, the project considers which elements related to social trust are most noteworthy, which mechanisms are activated in order to bolster the trust of individuals and organizations, and vice versa which forces seek to gain strategically from encouraging mistrust.

Methodologically, the project seeks to situate issues of trust through two modes of inquiry. On the one hand, quantitative data related to individual and group perceptions of trust and mistrust is identified, as well as more general quantifications of the scale and implications of trust problems throughout the issue areas. On the other, semi-structured interviews are envisaged with practitioners and experts in the various fields, from political consultants to journalists, from data scientists to transparency activists, from regulators to influencers. Taken together, this information will lead inductively to an analytical re-framing of the problem of trust as a practice in which disparate actors adopt a limited amount of permutations: trust from authority, trust from community, trust from self-interest, trust from disinterestedness, trust from transparency.

In general, trustworthiness is envisaged as a reputational claim made by individuals or groups, explicitly or implicitly: how well such claims fare in social interaction represents the stakes of the trustworthiness game. In turn, reaction to trustworthiness claims can come in the form of words or deeds, which need not necessarily be aligned with each other. This divergence is fairly familiar to us in the case of expressions of belief matched with actions that belie mistrust; however, under present conditions the opposite configuration, in which the voicing of mistrust is coupled with actions taken “as if” one trusted, is arguably just as prevalent. Exploring the implications of this latter stance for public discourse and belief systems is one of the major axes of the research project.

Research on politics