One of the themes shaping my work this year is “the future of trust and truth.” In an era characterized by disagreement over basic facts, where algorithmically-optimized social media platforms show us the truths we most want to see, the roles of truth and trust in ethics, in systems design, and in human experience strategy are crucial for us to understand. I’m examining questions such as: What does truth mean to us as humans; how does truth relate to belief, to science, to law; how does truth relate to trust; and so on.
And of course:
How do divisive politics figure into our trust in institutions, and how does our sense of truth suffer from exposure to misinformation and disinformation?
And then, the big question as it relates to my work and the work of many of my clients:
What does it mean to bring machines into this dynamic? To cross-pollinate these very human concerns with data, with algorithms, with machine learning? For algorithms optimized for platform-specific engagement and retention to shape our exposure to news and opinions?
On that last point, the twin topics of misinformation and disinformation have been a big focus this past year because of the pandemic, the U.S. presidential election, and the widespread racial justice protests as well as the backlash against them. On seemingly every high-level topic, people had opposing views and cited opposing sources to back them up. And this went beyond the U.S.: I had a conversation a few months ago with a journalist from the leading business magazine in Brazil, for example, about misinformation and trust, and what regulations may be needed to address them. Our concerns about Trump’s outsized influence in shaping social media discourse mirror theirs about Bolsonaro. These challenges are simultaneously local and global.
I’m not the first to think about trust, of course. Edelman has been producing their excellent Trust Barometer every year for 21 years. The work I’m doing is by no means meant to be a replacement of their important research, but rather incorporates their findings as part of a view on how trust and truth are fundamental to humanity, how they are important to understanding of technologies that we rely on.
I’ll be sharing ongoing insights in this blog and other outlets as I develop these ideas through my research and work them into my speaking and my forthcoming book, but for now I’ll toss another coin to Edelman, since their 2021 Trust Barometer just came out this week. One of the findings was that, of all the categories of institutions, business has the most public trust right now. Not government, not NGOs, not media, but business. That’s a tremendous responsibility and opportunity for business. It’s a call to purpose and action, a call for transparency, for principled leadership.
And for those businesses we define as “tech businesses” especially, not only is the public watching, but so are the eyes of history. As a crisis of democracy unfolds in the U.S. alongside a deadly pandemic, we come face to face with issues of misinformation and disinformation, of content moderation and platform access, and the consequences of the algorithmic blinders we all wear as we consume social media and our preferred news outlets. Each of these issues comes tangled in its own technical details around trust and truth, but in every case, there is one central truth: the need to frame these debates and their outcomes not around those individuals with the largest reach but around the rights and the future of humanity at large couldn’t be more urgent.