Emerging Technologies

Social media in the crossfire: This is how you establish 'digital trust'

Person using a smartphone.

social media is the least trusted industry in 2024 according to Edelman. Image: Unsplash/Gilles Lambert

Kate Whiting
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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Emerging Technologies

  • In January, the US Senate held a hearing on child safety online, which was attended by the CEOs of five social media platforms.
  • The 2024 Edelman Trust Barometer showed social media is the least trusted industry.
  • The World Economic Forum’s Digital Trust Initiative has published a white paper, outlining ways to rebuild trust in digital technologies.

Our lives are digital. From working and reading blogs, like this one, to bank transactions and social interactions, so many of our everyday activities now depend on digital technologies.

That’s why being able to trust those technologies is vital.

But trust in digital technologies is not uniform. As the 2024 Edelman Trust Barometer shows, social media is the least trusted industry, whereas technology as an industry is the most trusted.

Significant Trust Increases Across Most Industry Sectors
Trust in digital technologies varies by industry. Image: Edelman Trust Barometer

For the parents at the US Senate’s 31 January 2024 hearing on child online safety, who believe their children were harmed – or even took their own lives – as a result of social media use, there is no trust in the companies operating the social media platforms.

The hearing before the judiciary committee – at which the CEOs of five social media companies (Meta, X, Snap, TikTok and Discord) gave testimony and were questioned – looked at whether such companies have done enough to protect children from harmful content and child predators.

The US Congress is currently considering proposed legislation, including the Kids Online Safety Act, which requires platforms to “exercise reasonable care” to protect children. Other proposed bills include the Invest in Child Safety Act, which was first introduced in the US Senate in 2020 and would direct over $5 billion in mandatory funding to investigate and target the online predators.

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What is ‘digital trust’ and how do we establish it?

The World Economic Forum’s Digital Trust Initiative defines digital trust as “the expectation by individuals that digital technologies and services – and the organizations providing them – will protect all stakeholders’ interests and uphold societal expectations and values”.

In its latest white paper, Digital Trust: Supporting Individual Agency, the initiative outlines how support for individual agency and human rights and respect for individual users’ choices and values are “crucial to rebuilding trust in digital technologies.”

It advocates “individual agency by design” as a method of trustworthy development at the core of any technology strategy or regulatory approach.

“In order to promote trust, important values like agency, human rights, privacy and safety must become integral to the process of designing technology at the earliest possible stage,” said Daniel Dobrygowski, the Head of Governance and Trust at the World Economic Forum.

The Digital Trust Framework
A responsible future design is key to restoring digital trust. Image: World Economic Forum

Responsible design, based around three digital trust dimensions – transparency, privacy and redressability – can ensure technologies are developed in a human-centred way to support individuals’ expectations and values, the report says.

Digital trust: Transparency by design

Transparency ensures that digital technologies “do no more and no less than the user expects”. Organizations must ensure that users maintain control and feel empowered to make their own choices and act in their best interests online, the report adds.

Transparency is incorporated into digital technologies when developers:

  • Build transparency into their products and services
  • Offer effective digital literacy programmes
  • Make transparency tools more accessible, available and intuitive

Clear visibility on data flows, including what data is collected and how it is used, is just one example of transparency and digital literacy in action. The white paper sets out best practices for data collection transparency, including using plain language to make transparency efforts intelligible and user-centric design, to prioritize intuitive interfaces.

Digital trust: Privacy by design

Default protections for privacy assure users their interactions online will be safe and their personal data is protected, says the report.

Privacy is integrated into digital technologies when:

  • Technologies adhere to the spirit and letter of comprehensive privacy regulations
  • Developers incorporate effective consent mechanisms, and supporting tools and resources

The European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is one of the best-known examples of privacy by design, while Google, Microsoft and IBM are among companies that proactively prioritize principles of privacy in the development of products and services.

Digital trust: Redressability by design

Preparation and prevention are not always sufficient to eliminate the chance of harm from digital technologies, says the report. Effective redressability mechanisms must be put in place to ensure that “individuals who are harmed can be made whole”.

These mechanisms fall into the following categories:

  • Harm prevention tools used to enforce individual or consumer rights
  • Redress procedures that allow for interaction between harmed individuals and technology developers and owners
  • Third-party oversight mechanisms to ensure individual harms are fairly rectified

Ultimately, building and maintaining digital trust needs to be a shared responsibility that requires collaboration between the public and private sectors.

The report concludes: “As the world advances into the digital future, globally recognized, shared and verified standards can serve as powerful tools to bolster digital trust.”

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