Trust falls: how technology can start to win over the public again

The topic of trust within the tech sector has long been a curious one, representing something of a blind spot across the industry. The greater the technological advances, the more public wariness and apathy has tended to grow, leaving the sector with a trust deficit that it so far has not successfully dealt with.

The roots of this distrust are various and longstanding – we cannot entirely blame a broader global misunderstanding of AI on the 2001 Steven Spielberg film – but poor communication has undoubtedly been a key factor at times.

This is problematic. Any new technology, even one with an undeniably positive impact, needs to bring people with it on its journey to adoption.

However, it is not all bad news. As we have discussed previously, tech companies also now have a real opportunity to regain public trust. In order to begin to do so, a strong communications strategy is likely to be crucial.

Scared of the dark

People are instinctively wary about the unknown – it’s why many of us are scared of the dark when we’re younger. Until we have learned what certain things are and how they work, we are untrusting, suspicious of potential inherent danger.

High-profile failures of technology do not help. The exam grading fiasco during the summer made the word ‘algorithm’ a household term and has likely fostered a deep-rooted suspicion of any vaguely similar technology among a significant swathe of the population.

And then we have the conspiracy theorists, most clearly exemplified by those determined to burn down 5G masts during the first wave of the pandemic, supposedly in the belief that they were helping to spread Covid-19. What allows such thoughts to take hold, even in just a vocal minority, is a failure to understand what the technology is and how it works – and this, at least in part, is a communications issue.

For all of tech’s high-profile missteps, there are countless positive use cases. Yet how often is the term ‘Orwellian’ now used as a catch-all term for uneasiness over developments?

The bigger they are…

For a while, Big Tech has looked immune to these trust issues. Yes, we may not always fully trust it, but that doesn’t stop us using it.

Instead, when weighing up trust against convenience and quality of product or service, the latter generally wins, whether shopping with Amazon, searching on Google or connecting with friends on Facebook (or WhatsApp and Instagram, which it also owns).

This has suddenly changed and, as highlighted in our recent Tech Trends event, Big Tech may now be facing something of a reckoning on the topic of trust.

The catalyst has been the recent backlash against WhatsApp amid privacy concerns. Almost 9 million people downloaded rival Signal in the week new conditions of usership were announced.

While this demonstrates how precarious trust can be even for hugely established services, it is also more likely to be the moment the industry recognises its own trust problems and works to resolve them.

Bridging the gap

While improving trust won’t happen overnight, measures are already being taken to improve the tech sector. The EU proposed a new Digital Services Act at the end of 2020 and the UK has similar plans, with Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden announcing the Online Harms proposals and indicating the country should take a lead on improving internet standards.

These regulatory moves are double-edged, designed to improve the current online landscape while also drawing attention to the scale of some of these ongoing trust issues.

News that Sir David Attenborough will front a government-funded 5G AR app as part of a campaign to engage users with the new technology suggests a smarter approach. Drawing on the trustworthiness of such an esteemed public figure will hopefully bring reassurance to many over the arrival of 5G and help demonstrate its potential for improving lives.

Ultimately, we trust what we understand and are suspicious of what we don’t. To quote another Spielberg film, “your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”  This is often the public view, with technology disconnected from how it will benefit users and a perception of science for science’s sake, even when significant progress is made.

For the technology sector as a whole, good communication has never been more important. We need to ensure the reasons for and benefits of what we are doing are communicated as clearly as possible, or risk increasing the tech trust deficit.

This requires a strategy that places education and communication at its core and prioritises the end-user experience, rather than seeming to be an afterthought. People like to understand things and now more than ever it is our job to help them do so.

Written by Tom Curran, Account Director, Business & Technology

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Emily Reid