Essay: Digital Technologies and the Erosion of Social Trust

Paul McBride Brisbane essay

Social trust and the negative impact of its decline has been interesting and concerning economists and political scientists for some time (Hakansson & Wittmer 2015, p.517). As digital technology evolves, modern forms of media communication have become increasingly complex and discursive in terms of developing trust relations (Berry 1999, p.28), and concerns involving social trust and digital technology have become increasingly intertwined. Societies benefit from high levels of social trust, and while we are now communicating quicker and in a greater variety of ways than ever before, it is not immediately obvious whether the many forms of digital technology and their rapidly-evolving natures have a positive or negative impact on the social trust within a society. Social trust relies on many factors, and while digital technology is far from being the only, or even major, factor in influencing the amount of social trust within a society, it can play a major part. This essay will examine the question of whether digital technologies erode social trust, and the potential implication of the effects of digital technologies and related issues on social trust.

Social trust is a “belief in the honesty, integrity and reliability of others” (Taylor 2007, p.1). It provides the “cohesiveness necessary for the development of meaningful social relationships” (Welch 2001, p.3) and is highly important for both social and political reasons. The level of social trust within a society has implications in the fields of sociology, economics, psychology, anthropology and others. It contributes to a wide range of social phenomena and attributes, from stable government, social equity, market growth, and public harmony, as well as elements on an individual level, such as optimism, physical and mental well-being, education, community, and participation (European Social Survey, online). Individuals benefit from being part of a society with high social trust, as well as contributing to, and participating in, it. Social trust is a “deep-seated indicator of the health of societies and our economies” (Halpern 2015, online) and, when averaged across a country, the levels of social trust “predict national economic growth as powerfully as financial and physical capital, and more powerfully than skill levels” (Halpern 2015, online). Abundant social trust in a society is often see as “a lubricant facilitating all types of economic exchanges” (Krishna 2000, p.71).

In 1994 there were just 10,000 websites globally (Swire 2014, online). This changed with the launch of search engines – particularly market leader Google – as so-called ‘walled gardens’ such as AOL “were killed” (Swire 2014, online), allowing users to easily and quickly find what they were looking for. E-commerce exploded, and in 2001, well over 100 million Americans had purchased a product online (Mutz 2009, p.439). Blogs, chat websites, and early forms of social media followed, and broadband Internet began to increase in availability in 2005. Sites such as YouTube, which allowed users to upload and watch videos, became hugely popular, and social media emerged as a major online presence with Facebook and Twitter in 2004 and 2006 respectively. Smart phones (particularly Apple’s iPhone) brought the Internet to mobile phones in the early 2010s and have “completely changed the way that people consume content on a daily basis” (Swire 2014, online). The majority of Internet time is now spent on mobile devices worldwide, and around 50% of people now get their news from a digital source such as a website, app or e-mail alert (American Press Institute 2016, online). The media’s role in mediating experience by bridging the gap between events and audiences is a broad but extremely important one (Berry 1999, p.28), and media organisations now have to take into account the presentation of their news more than ever, as users of digital media place high importance on the presentation and delivery of news.

The Internet’s early architecture was built on a foundation of trust (Hurwitz 2013, p.1580), but as it matured, its uses and users became increasingly complex. Online social networks are now a major part of everyday life and the method by which many of us stay connected with friends, consume news, and conduct business. They are a prominent method by which people foster social connections, and the significance and depth of these connections and their relationship with fostering trust has been extensively studied. The Internet’s transition from an early “community with a common purpose” to one that “supports myriad, often conflicting, private interests” (Hurwitz 2013, p.1580) has both positive and negative aspects, with corresponding effects on social trust.

Variation across individuals in their levels of trust in the Internet supports the view that the Internet is an ‘experience’ technology – users’ views of it are greatly shaped by their experience (Dutton & Shepherd 2003, p.7). The rapid proliferation of social media websites since the mid-2000s has accelerated this notion, as users’ experiences of using social media can differ widely. It has been suggested that social networking websites should inform potential users that “risk-taking and privacy concerns are potentially relevant and important concerns” before they sign up to become members (Fogel & Nehmad 2009, p.153), as one of the major negative aspects of social networking sites is the potential for users to cause harm to other users, and thus causing a drop in social trust. Internet users initially experience a high level of trust in online communities, but as time passes, trust rapidly declines (Parker 2015, online).

Social networking on the Internet takes place in a context of trust, but trust is a concept with many dimensions and facets (Grabner-Krauter & Bitter 2013, p.1). Studies suggest that the lay public relies on social trust when making judgements of risks and benefits when personal knowledge about a subject is lacking (Siegrist & Cvetkovich 2000, p.1), so Internet users place trust in other Internet users with expertise, identity, personal information and some even with money lending (Lai & Turban 2008, p.387). This can often cause distress or harm as a result, with a corresponding drop in social trust. Trust in the Internet and the information that is obtainable from it is critical to the development of electronic services such as public service delivery to online commerce, and these are harmed if social trust is low.

However, Hakansson and Witmer (2015, p.518) argue that greater use of social media and an increase in number and variety of online communities can affect social trust positively. They suggest that because information and knowledge is vital to building trust, and digital media transmits information much faster than face-to-face relationships, social trust can be increased as a result. Similarly, social media also makes it easier to find new relationships and opportunities for marketing.

As the Internet has matured and the number of users suffering harm or having a negative experience online has increased, there have been increased calls for Internet providers to mediate use of the Internet, which has caused concern for people who place high value on privacy. Various methods have been proposed to calculate levels of, and manage, social trust in online social networks, but none have proved to work definitively (Carminati et. al 2014, p.16). In today’s Internet, intermediaries are increasingly active (Hurwitz 2013, p.1581), and can protect users from experiencing harm online, and thus prevent a drop in social trust. Parigi and Cook (2015, p.19) explain how digital technology operates as an assurance structure when mediation is a factor in interactions. Mediation “reduces overall uncertainty and promotes trust between strangers”. At the same time, it removes any of the human emotions connected with meeting new people. Social interactions are often uniform and stripped of uncertainty or individuality, and are therefore devoid of the “cohesiveness necessary for the development of meaningful social relationships” (Welch 2001, p.3) that high social trust requires.

An additional concerning element of the proliferation of intermediaries is that is can often be unclear “which institutions, if any, safeguard users from harm” (Hurwitz 2013, p.1581). In the post-trust Internet, users “cannot embrace active intermediaries without assurances that their data will be handled in accordance with their expectation” (Hurwitz 2013, p.1582). Moving forward, it is the very nature of the Internet which makes establishing liability for intermediaries extremely difficult, as well as allowing it to thrive. A recent study showed that 48% of Americans expressed concern about corporate intrusion in their Internet activities (Brynko 2011, p.11).

In many cases, attempts to regulate digital technologies can erode social trust. In democratic societies, it is the role of legislators to defend and promote the public interest, but Australia is rare among Western democracies in that it has no constitutional guarantee of media freedom or free expression (Pearson 2012, p.99). Generally, journalists prefer to run their own affairs by creating systems of self-regulation (White 2014, p.4), but are often subject to intense scrutiny. In Australia, a proposed 2010 federal government review was meant to map out the future of media regulation in the digital era (Conroy 2010, online), but fell by the wayside after the News of the World phone hacking scandal shifted attention back to print media (Pearson 2012, p.99). Further government inquiries in 2011 and 2012 sought to establish the extent to which rapidly developing news businesses and their digital platforms required regulation, but no obvious solution was reached (Pearson 2012, p.99). The lack of a written guarantee of media freedom in Australia means that any attempts to regulate media is more of a threat to democracy, and hence social trust. Enforced self-regulation “is not a suitable option – at least not until free expression earns stronger protection” (Pearson 2012, p.99). A UK study found that current regulation of the Internet is “failing to address the democratic value in enabling citizens to navigate … public space” and “failing to support informed choices about content” (Fielden 2011, p.99).

While the Internet has no guarantees of freedom from regulation, it presents many challenges to those seeking to regulate it. A lack of centralised control, widely-used encryption techniques, its international nature, and anonymity of its users are just a few of the factors which make regulation of the Internet incredibly difficult. While cyberspace has been described as “a terra nullius in which social relations and laws have no historical existence and must be reinvented” (Chenou 2014, p.205), the nature of the Internet, and therefore its affect on the social trust of a nation or group of people, varies greatly depending on location. For example, Australia has legislation prohibiting abuse of market power to lessen competition, whereas in the United States, these laws are not as stringent.

However, not all legislation involving regulation of digital technology is likely to decrease social trust. It could be argued that the Spam Act 2003 is likely to prevent a decrease in a society’s social trust as it greatly prohibits online fraud and encourages self-regulation by users. Similarly, regulation of cyberspace for children is almost universally accepted as a reasonable form of mediation in digital technology with no decrease in social trust likely as a result. While the Australian Labor Party’s 2007 proposal for a blanket ban on content deemed harmful to children was rejected, further legislation has been implemented to protect children online in Australia with the Enhancing Online Safety for Children Act 2015. In the United Kingdom, a 2008 report by the government’s Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee expressed concern about the amount of time taken for the most extreme content to be removed from video-sharing websites such as YouTube (Fielden 2011, p.78). While YouTube introduced a ‘safety mode’ in 2010 to address concerns over parental controls, there is still much concern over the amount of inappropriate material children can access, and the lack of regulation faced by the hosts of this material. As so much data is uploaded to sites such as YouTube every minute, hour and day, it is physically impossible for every piece of content to be checked, so the future of online content regulation for sites such as these is, essentially, crowdsourced (Fielden 2011, p.77). The YouTube community guidelines state: “Every new community feature on YouTube involves a certain level of trust. We trust you to be responsible, and millions of users respect that trust, so please be one of them” (YouTube, online). Discussions at government level concerning the possibility of further regulation of online content still exist in many Western democracies.

Another area which has potential for eroding social trust is in the area of copyright. Copyright has developed over centuries, and friction between users of digital technologies and regulatory bodies has existed for as long as digital technology has been a medium for communication. The digital age has made many traditional modes of reproduction of intellectual property obsolete, and despite many positive aspects of faster and more widely available communication options, methods of creativity and ownership have been tested in profound ways (Fitzgerald 2008, online). The Digital Millennium Copyright Act 1998 criminalised copyright infringement on the Internet, but has attracted criticism for overzealous application of its powers and undermining free speech, and therefore having the potential to erode social trust. In the digital age, copyright activists argue that overzealous use of copyright laws online restrict access to information (Lessig 2008, online). Organisations such as Creative Commons and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) provide alternatives to copyright, and aim to protect the public interest regarding new technologies (Lambe 2014, p.448). The EFF is especially active in the fields of intellectual property, free speech, anti-surveillance, and bloggers’ rights, and has been in legal disputes with several commercial entities and law enforcement agencies as a result.

Today, every social media user is a publisher of sorts (Cuddy 2016, online). Social media provides instant access to potentially huge audiences, and huge potential for copyright infringement too. Social networking sites provide perhaps the greatest risk of an erosion of social trust in the realm of copyright by providing a platform for users who have shared their creative work with the world to have it stolen and used by others (Legal Aid NSW 2017, online). Copyright law in Australia covers works that are created or shared online, but a social media website’s terms and conditions may change the rights to the work, and these conditions are not always clear or understood.

Another element of digital technologies which has vast potential to erode social trust is the concern of government and corporate Internet surveillance. Post 9/11, the United States government and its federal agencies greatly increased surveillance of its citizens online and introduced a large amount of of cybersecurity legislation as an overall part of their anti-terrorism policy (Nhan & Carroll 2012, p.394). Many watchdog groups expressed concern as a result, although the effect of the legislative and policy changes were perhaps unclear until notorious NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden leaked information regarding government surveillance of private citizens’ online information and habits. In 2014, a survey found that 60% of respondents had heard of Snowden, and that 39% of people have changed their online behaviour as a result of the information he leaked (Jardine & Hampson 2016, online). Jardine and Hampson (2016, online) also found that that many people’s routine online activity had changed substantially, with the most common change being a move from ‘public’ search engines to private search engines with built-in anonymity technology. Similarly, recent scandals in the United States exposing surveillance by the government on its citizens’ online information is likely to have greatly eroded trust in digital media, and thus, social trust (Anderson & Rainie 2014, p.20). This supports the theory that that digital technology has a negative effect on social trust. (Hakasson & Witmer p.518).

There are many real-life examples of digital technology affecting democracy worthy of study, and many of them display potential to erode social trust. Govier (1997, p.20) points out that distrust in politics is “especially prevalent, and, while it may be well-founded, can have pernicious effects” on a society. The 2016 United States presidential election saw the Electronic Frontier Foundation involving itself in an attempt to force a recount in three key states after evidence showed that hackers had manipulated voting machines and optical scanners (Hoffman-Andrews 2016, online), most likely affecting the overall result of the election. In its role as the Fourth Estate, the media is hypothetically the guardian of the public interest and the regulators of those holding democratic power. However, as Coronel (2003, p.9) explains, the media are often used “in the battle between rival political groups, in the process sowing divisiveness rather than consensus, hate speech instead of sober debate, and suspicion rather than social trust”. In these cases, media contribute to public cynicism and apathy, and have a negative effect on democratic processes, and hence a decline in social trust.

President Trump’s first 100 days in office have seen him launch numerous verbal attacks on the media, which have likely eroded social trust for many Americans, but interestingly, polls have provided conflicting results on whether the American public trust the media or the President more (Farber 2017, online; Lima 2017, online; Patterson 2017, online). The goals of advocates for free speech online and anti-regulation groups are often intertwined with those seeking political reform, and those operating at the same time as the current political administration are no different. Ericson (2016, online) goes as far as saying that Lawrence Lessig has “already transformed intellectual-property law with his Creative Commons innovation, and now he’s focused on an even bigger problem: the US’ broken political system”.

In conclusion, it can be said that as societies function on the basis of trust, and users of digital technology are no different, social trust is paramount to a well-functioning democracy. For a high level of social trust to be maintained, users need to trust the Internet and associated digital technologies to keep their information secure and private. Trust is the bedrock of the Internet, is the basis for much of its success, and, in many ways, the philosophy behind much of what keeps it running. However, the Internet provides many opportunities for social trust to be eroded, and trust in digital technologies, and especially the Internet, is arguably declining. When trust in digital technology starts to wane, or government agencies or organisations are shown to be breaching privacy or perceived as being dishonest, users change how they behave and social trust declines. Recent copyright and regulatory conflict, and scandals involving surveillance and privacy have likely had a negative effect on social trust in many Western democracies. The resulting drop in social trust has a negative effect on a society, in terms of public harmony, economics, and other areas. Social cohesion can be established or demolished by high or low social trust.


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