In episode 74, our guest, Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet & Technology Research Group, delves into the subject of trust in the context of the Internet and institutions. He identifies two key aspects of online trust. Firstly, a decline in trust, particularly concerning major technology companies and institutions. People have become increasingly skeptical about the privacy and reliability of these entities. This decline is further exacerbated by the interplay between privacy concerns, trust issues, and confidence in institutions within the online space.
However, despite the declining trust, he argues that people are unlikely to disengage from online activities. The internet has become deeply integrated into modern life, and essential tasks, such as banking and shopping, heavily rely on online tools. People have grown dependent on the convenience and efficiency offered by internet-based services, even if they express reservations about trusting the companies providing them. The conversation also explores several contributing factors to declining trust. Historical events, such as the Vietnam War, Watergate scandals, and economic recessions, have eroded trust in institutions over time. The internet has amplified these trends by providing access to information about institutional shortcomings, fuelling suspicions and concerns about trust.
Political polarization is another influential factor. The rise of right-wing nationalist organizations, combined with politics becoming a divisive battleground, has led to heightened mistrust among citizens. Additionally, frustrations arise from the perception that governments are inept in addressing major societal challenges, such as climate change, misinformation, and the pandemic. Notably, trust is portrayed as a transactional calculation. Individuals weigh the potential benefits of an interaction against the compromises it might entail. Trust, in this context, becomes context-specific and contingent on various factors, reflecting a complex interplay of motivations and perceptions. Lee discusses the research methodology employed to study trust. Given the declining response rates to phone polls, online surveys have become more prevalent. Ensuring representative samples is crucial to obtain accurate insights into trust levels. However, some individuals distrust survey-givers, which may lead to incomplete data representation.
He discusses the echo chamber argument, where people seek information that aligns with their views, but his data shows that highly motivated partisans from both the activist left and right actively engage with diverse information, including opposing views, to strengthen their arguments and understanding of the political landscape. Partisanship, civic engagement, and commitment to the political system play a significant role in determining the information people seek. The interview touches upon the role of academia and research in understanding trust. Different researchers focus on various aspects of trust, ranging from political culture and democratic institutions to corporations and macroeconomics. Understanding the complexities of trust in its various forms and contexts remains an ongoing area of exploration.