The migration of trust in the digital age

 
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Trust is the main currency of the age in which we live, and people seem to be changing the directions they invest in faster than in the past. How is our life of faith influenced by how we relate generally to trust?

Worldwide, things are not looking good. Despite the fact that international respondents declare the use of “reputable” media brands as the first weapon against misinformation, many make their first stop for information social networks like Facebook. In a world changed by digital transformation, consumer trust is being given to new businesses or organisations that embrace this digital economy instead of long-standing institutions But what is Facebook’s reputation for providing real news and defending against false information? Beyond the Cambridge Analytica breach (by which Facebook demonstrated its structural inability to protect its users’ data), even beyond the serenity with which Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told the US Congress that “Facebook is not a media company, but a technology company”, Facebook’s reputation remains too good compared to the destructive potential of the network.

The affection we still have for social media platforms, despite their deviations from the good intentions we credit them with, should be reconfigured even more drastically, as long as the network is lagging behind in terms of technological developments that make it dangerous.

Unfortunately, the most shocking examples of these dangers are not those that have been analysed so far: live broadcasts of acts of cruelty, crimes, and, more recently, armed attacks that would be impossible to air via traditional media outlets; the fake news epidemic that contaminates digital platforms and is especially damaging to social media users with little or no media literacy skills; or the political manipulation through hyper-targeted campaigns, etc. It seems like the worst is yet to come.

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The next frontier in fake news

In early June, for example, the company refused to remove a video shared from Instagram in which Mark Zuckerberg seems to declare that the credit for his success belongs to an occult organization. The shocking aspect is not the statement itself—which is fake—but the way it was obtained. The video is an example of deepfake.

Deepfake is a video product obtained by manipulating photo images with the help of artificial intelligence. Deepfake videos start from a real movie, over which another movie or a series of photos is superimposed, so that the contents of the two sources can be merged into a new video. With the help of this technology, video images of a real person (in this case, Mark Zuckerberg) can be manipulated to make it appear that the subject is saying or doing something that he or she did not actually say or do.

The same thing happened in 2019 with a video in which the image of US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi had been altered to make it appear as if Pelosi was intoxicated. In mid-June 2019, Facebook announced that it had classified the video as “misinformation” and removed the hashtag that made it visible on the network. However, the company did not delete it, as YouTube did, but left it on the network, as did Instagram and Twitter.

The political charge of the event was classified by analysts as a harbinger of a troubled future for the next election campaign. These new digital technologies threaten to create new areas for misinformation and destroy our digital trust—and in some cases it’s already happening.

“We continue to look at how we can improve our approach and the systems we’ve built,” Facebook officials said in a statement. However, the company’s assurances are still too feeble, and the pace of structural improvement is far behind the pace of society. The countdown to elections in countless countries does not wait for the progress of the network’s policies. The accelerated growth in the number of people connected to the internet does not take into account any of the ingredients of the impending disaster.

A report compiled by Mary Meeker with data from the UN, the US Census, Pre Research, the China Internet Network Information Center, the Islamic Republic News Agency, and other statistical foundations concluded that the percentage of the world’s internet-connected population has doubled in just 10 years, from 24% in 2009 to 51% in 2019.

Most internet users are not in Europe (15%) or North America (9%), but in Asia-Pacific. That is where 53% of internet users are and there is still massive room for growth.

Within Europe, the percentage of the population connected to the internet is 78%, while in North America it is 89%. Within the Asia-Pacific region, the percentage of internet-connected inhabitants is only 48%. Even so, the total number of Asian internet users far outnumber others in the rest of the world.

This information alone is enough to encourage the adoption of a growing distrust in digital media. British author Rachel Botsman, a teacher at Saïd Business School in Oxford, believes that society is on the verge of a historic revolution when it comes to trust. In the author’s view, humanity today migrates from the habit of trusting institutions (such as banks, the press, the government) to a new habit: that of trusting unknown individuals through technology.

“The rise of multi-billion-dollar companies such as Airbnb and Uber, whose success depends on trust between strangers,” Botsman says, “is a clear illustration of how trust can now travel through networks and marketplaces.”

The movement Botsman is pointing to is developing so fast that even new companies are affected by it. Facebook and Uber are replacing (and are being promoted as replacements of) discredited institutions. People get information from each other on Facebook because they no longer believe in the press; they ride with Uber, not the taxi, because they are dissatisfied with the classic taxi companies. But we see how even these two companies are often unable to defend their institutional reputation, in the midst of circumstances that reveal their inadequacy to the new society.

In the war on fake news stories, Facebook is a loser. If its founders had had the vision to devise security measures from the very first signs of the network’s exponential growth, they probably would have still been able to catch the train of change. For now, however, the voice of experts is approaching the consensus that Facebook itself is the engine driving the train of public opinion into the abyss. Uber, too, is no stranger to scandals. Analysts question the company’s lack of responsibility in serious cases such as sexual assaults during car sharing.

Both companies, and others around them, have been hit by the mistrust of the users they are supposed to serve. So, wondering how we can keep our confidence—“this very precious asset that enables us to do things and take risks,”—Rachel Botsman suggests something unthinkable in the whirlwind of everyday life: to take “a ‘trust pause’” and to re-examine our relationships and technologies in terms of the trust we invest in them.

What is trust today?

In her book, Who Can You Trust?, Botsman says that sociologists have not yet agreed on a definition of trust. In fact, she says, there are more academic papers about trust than there are about love. “I imagine trust as a remarkable force that allows us to overcome uncertainty, to be vulnerable, to try something new or do something differently. It is literally the bridge or the social glue between the known and the unknown. And that’s why my definition of it is simple,” Botsman said. Trust is “a confident relationship with the unknown.”

One of the leading experts in Botsman’s studies on trust is Professor Adam Seligman, who teaches religion at Boston University, where he also works as an associate researcher at the Institute for Culture, Religion and International Relations. He has published a volume on the study of trust at Princeton: The Problem of Trust, in which he argues that the deterioration of trust, which he considers the prerogative of postmodern society, seems to degrade us to the condition of premodern civilization because the identity of individuals is increasingly regulated by the group to which they belong.

“And when the group dictates the role that the individual has to play, trust seems to lose its usefulness, because,” Seligman says, “the definition of trust is that it involves one in a relation where the acts, character, or intentions of the other cannot be confirmed. (…) In this reading one trusts or is forced to trust (…) when one cannot know, when one has not the capabilities to apprehend or check on the other and so has no choice but to trust”.

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Today, instead of trust—which replaced the guarantee that the other will honour the agreement made (if we are to reduce any relationship to a form of contract)—people set the rules for the group, Seligman said. This is profoundly limiting, because, as another very popular author nowadays, Esther Perel, put it, “trust is the active engagement with the unknown.” While she acknowledges that trust makes us vulnerable, Perel argues that “the more we trust, the farther we are able to venture.”

However, Brené Brown speaks more eloquently about the vulnerability that trust entails. She has dedicated the last two decades of her life to researching this very concept: vulnerability. Brown has written extensively and given numerous presentations on vulnerability, but she could not help but touch on the subject of trust, as trust is essential for vulnerability. For the researcher who wrote several books that have recently become bestsellers, “trust is defined as: choosing to make what’s important to you, vulnerable to the actions of someone else.”

But does this mean that we have to take the risk of leaving everything we hold dear in the hands of someone from whom we have no guarantee that they will appreciate what is offered to them? While acknowledging the risk component in manifesting trust, Brown says there are some reference points that can help us decide whether or not to manifest the courage to trust.

Brown summarized her reference points using a form of courage—more precisely, the acronym BRAVING (manifestation of courage):

  • Boundaries (“There is no trust without boundaries”);
  • Reliability (“I can only trust you if you do what you say you are going to do. And not once, but over and over again”);
  • Accountability (“I can only trust you if, when you make a mistake, you are willing to own it, apologise for it and make amends. I can only trust you if, when I make a mistake, I am allowed to own it, apologise for it and make amends”);
  • Vault (“You respect my story [and] you respect other people’s story”);
  • Integrity (“It’s choosing courage over comfort. It’s choosing what’s right over what’s fun, fast, or easy”);
  • Non-judgment (“You cannot judge yourself for needing help, so do not judge others for needing your help”);
  • Generosity (“Our relationship is only a trusting relationship if you can assume the most generous thing about my words, intentions and behaviours, and then check in with me”).

Trust is a two-way street and it is good to apply the same criteria to one’s own person, because when we become trustworthy ourselves, we recognize more easily the quality of being trustworthy in others.

Rachel Botsman has her own system too, a little simpler than Brown’s, because it has only four elements:

  • Competence (“Do you have the skills, knowledge, time and resources to do a particular task or job? Are you honest about what you can and can’t do?”);
  • Reliability (“Can people depend on you to keep the promises and commitments you make? Are you consistent in the way you behave from one day to the next?”);
  • Empathy (“Do you care about the other person’s interests as well as your own? Do you think about how your decisions and actions affect others?”);
  • Integrity (“Do you say what you mean and mean what you say? Do your words align with your actions? Are you honest about your intentions and motives toward others?”).
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The question between the lines

All four trust psychologists I mentioned earlier threw several defining elements for trust in the arena: the tension between the known and the unknown and each person’s palette of safety clues. A Christian will look at all of this and will not be able to hold back a question, the answer to which they will also look for among secular research: Does this apply to faith in God?

The essential struggle of the Christian is to act on the basis of the belief that God is trustworthy. All other spiritual disciplines return to faith as the core of life: study, prayer, temperance, worship, repentance, communion, all have meaning only if the God we study about, to whom we pray, before whom we remain worthy, in worship, repentance, and communion, is a God who is competent, reliable, empathetic, and upright; only if He is omnipotent and loving, as the theologies of theodicy have concluded.

As humans, however, we are not in a position to verify any of these elements. Therefore, we have nothing to do, as Adam Seligman said, but let faith make up for our inability to evaluate. Due to our unwillingness to accept our condition, we sometimes revolt by wanting to understand what was not guaranteed to us, and we often get bogged down in the infamous “Why?” However, when in full manifestation, faith is placed at the contact between the finite man and the infinite God, making the communication between two realms possible: between the Creator and His work.

It is fascinating how faith puts us in a position to show generosity to God, because when we cannot fully understand the motives or purposes of His actions (practically every time), it invites us to abandon any suspicion that He would neglect us or even that He wants to harm us, and allow Him to be Himself, even if we don’t understand Him.

As Perel said, the more we trust, the more we move forward. The more we confront the unknown with the belief that God keeps His word, the more we become able to move forward in our life of faith—and in our lives in general.

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Alina Kartman is a senior editor at Signs of the Time and ST Network. A version of this article first appeared on their website and is republished with permission.