The Trust Deficit

Trust is essential to democracies. Without trust, politicians cease talking to each other, banks stop lending to each other, and citizens cease to respect the police. Worse, the erosion of trust in political and social institutions eats away at our sense of identity. We moderns like to think of ourselves as trustworthy. We like to be liked and when we interact with others, as we increasingly do via social media, we like to be ‘liked’ back. Indeed in an increasingly networked and globalised world, where we may interact with thousands of individuals every day, few of whom we have or are ever likely to meet, trust is more essential than ever, the glue that holds networks together and keeps the wheels of commerce turning.

All of which is why the recent stand-off over the US budget and the revelations about police federation officials’ version of their meeting with Andrew Mitchell are so worrying. For these are not isolated incidents but symptoms of a growing trust deficit that now afflicts a wide range of political and social institutions. This deficit can be traced back to the 2008 financial crisis that dealt a mortal blow to Lehman Brothers and rocked faith in the world banking system. It continued through the 2009 MPs’ expenses scandal and the leak in 2010 of thousands of confidential US diplomatic cables to Wikileaks. Next came the 2011 London riots, sparked by mistrust of police accounts of the shooting of Mark Duggan, followed by the Levenson inquiry, sparked by public ire over News Corp’s deception over the full extent of its role in phone hacking.

Now it is Chancellor Merkel’s turn to rail about a ‘breach of trust’ – in this case over reports in Der Spiegel prompted by Edward Snowden’s leaks about the NSA’s Prism programme that US intelligence agencies have been hacking her mobile phone. Such practices were ‘completely unacceptable’ between allies, she told Barack Obama on Wednesday, and should cease immediately. On arrival at an EU summit in Brussels on Thursday, Merkel sounded even crosser, saying it was ‘really not on’ for friends to spy on each other and that ‘trust needs to be restored’.

Coming on top of President Hollande’s protest about the extent of US surveillance of French citizens’ communications, this would suggest that Snowden’s revelations about Prism are finally hitting home and that in the age of Wikileaks governments that wish to retain the confidence of foreign leaders and command domestic legitimacy need to operate a policy of complete transparency.

But there is also a paradox here for if Snowden is correct then it is not only the US that is guilty of a lack of transparency but internet companies such as Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo and Google who, he claims, have provided the NSA with ‘backdoor access’ to their servers in order to make it easier for them to access confidential data. Yet there has been no equivalent outcry from the billions of ordinary users of these internet behemoths. On the contrary, unlike Merkel, most of us – and I count myself in this statement – do not seem overly bothered that the NSA may be routinely snooping on our private communications with the connivance of Google and co.

On one level, this is entirely understandable. Unless we are involved in terrorism or a criminal activity, most of us probably believe we have nothing to hide, or nothing that would be of much interest to the intelligence services. But while this may be naive it is also not the only reason for public complacency about the scale of such snooping, because at some fundamental level we also trust social media in ways that we no longer trust the government, police or newspapers. Indeed, the Pew Foundation recently found that internet users are twice as likely as non-internet users to view other people as trustworthy, with regular Facebook users being more than three times as likely to trust others.

This is partly because platforms like Facebook and Twitter connect us to people who share our opinions and prejudices, our likes and dislikes. But it is also because such platforms are transparent in ways that, for example, the deliberations of the Daily Mail news desk, or the Guardian’s own editorial meetings, are not. As Airbnb, the private bed and breakfast booking platform that has grown to 9 million users in just five years, puts it ‘trust is what makes it work’. Trust is also the key to the success of other applications that trade off our altruistic instincts like Fon and Snapgoods, as well as to social networks more generally, and is precisely why Facebook, Yahoo and Google have been so concerned to distance themselves from Snowden’s accusations, hence their categorical denials that they provided the NSA with ‘direct access’ to their servers. But of course direct access is not the same thing as backdoor access and we would do well to remember that in the past many of these companies have been less than frank about how and where they pay corporate tax.

For the moment, it seems, we are still sufficiently enamoured with social media technologies to give internet companies the benefit of the doubt. But the question is once the novelty wears off – as one day it surely must – will we be so trusting or will Google and Facebook experience their own trust deficit? Only time will tell. But as Julian Assange learned to his cost, the logic of these technologies is toward ever greater transparency and those who are economical with the truth or who are caught in a bare-faced lie risk far worse than a tongue lashing from Angela Merkel.


4 thoughts on “The Trust Deficit

  1. The failing of trust is in no way a recent phenomenon. Indeed it may be considered a hardy constituent of human nature well documented throughout history. The ancient writings of Chinese and Indian strategists contain information on deception ans subversion . The ancient Egyptians had a thoroughly developed system for the acquisition of intelligence and more recently Francis Walsingham more often referred to as Elisabeth Ist spymaster than her private secretary and his sophisticated penetration of the Spanish military . The cold war involved intense espionage between the US the Soviet Union and China.

    The means by which we gather intelligence may have become more sophisticated but the root and intent remain the same.

    • Thank you for this historical perspective on trust. But there is a key difference between autocratic societies and democratic ones and that is that dictators have no need to win the trust of the people; rather, they rule through fear. Similarly, in feudal societies, where everyone has their appointed place in the hierarchy, authority flows from god to the sovereign to the nobility and so on down. In that situation, it is your duty to obey the king (you have no choice). By contrast in modern capitalist societies, power and the generation of wealth depend on the goodwill of free-thinking agents, something that will only be granted if those agents trust you. Indeed trust can be seen as the default emotion of modern democracies. As Ute Frevert, a historian at the Max Planck Institute in Berlin puts it: ‘Trust is a feel good word. We feel happier when we trust and we disapprove of people who we experience as suspicious and distrustful.’

  2. Could be that on an evolutionary level, we as humans have had to trust to survive. Is this an instinct for survival or a learned behavior? Do we function best in our family units, our social circles and then out to the perimeters you are discussing, Mark, if we are trusting and deserving of trust? If we seek trust, respect those people and institutions who we perceive as trustworthy and condemn those who betray our trust, either individually or as a society, could our actions and feelings be considered to be making society function? Does mistrust create dysfunctionality?

    • Thank you for your comments. Yes, there is a good evidence that at some level trust is instinctual.In a landmark study in Nature in 2005 involving simple role-playing economic games, Ernst Fehr showed that the administration of a neuropeptitde, oxytocin, greatly increased people’s willingness to trust strangers even in circumstances where it would be more rational to distrust then. Since then Fehr and his colleagues have gone on to explore the emotional and neuronal basis of trust further. His conclusion is that we are primed by biology to cooperate. Indeed, Fehr argues that being trusting is our default state. However, when our trust is violated we also find it pleasurable to punish free riders ­– a capacity that may have evolved to preserve the social capital value of trust. But of course trust is also a product of learned behaviour and culture, particularly in capitalist societies where laws and institutions are designed to punish free riders who exploit the trust of the majority.

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