3.2 TRUST AND SOCIAL COHESION
The world is suffering from a “trust deficit disorder”, in the words of the UN Secretary-General addressing the UN General Assembly in 2018.140 Trust among nations and in multilateral processes has weakened as states focus more on strategic competition than common interests and behave more aggressively. Building trust, and underpinning it with clear and agreed standards, is central to the success of digital cooperation.
Digital technologies have enabled some new interactions that promote trust, notably by verifying people’s identities and allowing others to rate them.141 Although not reliable in all instances, such systems have enabled many entrepreneurs on e-commerce platforms to win the trust of consumers, and given many people on sharing platforms the confidence to invite strangers into their cars or homes.
In other ways, digital technologies are eroding trust. Lies can now spread more easily, including through algorithms which generate and promote misinformation, sowing discord and undermining confidence in political processes.142 The use of artificial intelligence to produce “deep fakes” – audio and visual content that convincingly mimics real humans – further complicates the task of telling truth from misinformation.143
Violations of privacy and security are undermining people’s trust in governments and companies. Trust between states is challenged by new ways to conduct espionage, manipulate public opinion and infiltrate critical infrastructure. While academia has traditionally nurtured international cooperation in artificial intelligence, governments are incentivised to secrecy by awareness that future breakthroughs could dramatically shift the balance of power.144
The trust deficit might in part be tackled by new technologies, such as training algorithms to identify and take down misinformation. But such solutions will pose their own issues: could we trust the accuracy and impartiality of the algorithms? Ultimately, trust needs to be built through clear standards and agreements based on mutual self-interest and values and with wide participation among all stakeholders, and mechanisms to impose costs for violations.
How can trust be promoted in the digital age?
The problem of trust came up repeatedly in written contributions to the Panel. Microsoft’s contribution stressed that an atmosphere of trust incentivises the invention of inclusive new technologies. As Latin American human rights group Derechos Digitales put it, “all participants in processes of digital cooperation must be able to share and work together freely, confident in the reliability and honesty of their counterparts”. But how can trust be promoted? We received a large number of ideas:
Articulating values and principles that govern technology development and use. Being transparent about decision-making that impacts other stakeholders, known vulnerabilities in software, and data breaches. Governments inviting participation from companies and civil society in discussions on regulation. Making real and visible efforts to obtain consent and protect data, including “security-bydesign” and “privacy-by-design” initiatives.149
Accepting oversight from a trusted third-party: for the media, this could be an organisation that fact-checks sources; for technology companies, this could be external audits of design, deployment and internal audit processes; for governments, this could be reviews by human rights forums.
Understanding the incentive structures that erode trust, and finding ways to change them: for example, requiring or pressuring social media firms to refuse to run adverts which contain disinformation, de-monetise content that contains disinformation, and clearly label sponsors of political adverts.150
Finally, digital cooperation itself can be a source of trust. In the Cold War, small pools of shared interest – non-proliferation or regional stability – allowed competitors to work together and paved the way for transparency and confidence-building measures that helped build a modicum of trust.151 Analogously, getting multiple stakeholders into a habit of cooperating on issues such as standard-setting and interoperability, addressing risks and social harm and collaborative application of digital technologies to achieve the SDGs, could allow trust to be built up gradually.
All citizens can play a role in building societal resilience against the misuse of digital technology. We all need to deepen our understanding of the political, social, cultural and economic impacts of digital technologies and what it means to use them responsibly. We encourage nations to consider how educational systems can train students to thoughtfully consider the sources and credibility of information.
There are many encouraging instances of digital cooperation being used to build individual capacities that will collectively make it harder for irresponsible use of digital technologies to erode societal trust.145 Examples drawn to the Panel’s attention by written submissions and interviews include:
- The 5Rights Foundation and British Telecom developed an initiative to help children understand how the apps and games they use make money, including techniques to keep their attention for longer.146
- The Cisco Networking Academy and United Nations Volunteers are training youth in Asia and Latin America to explore how digital technologies can enable them to become agents of social change in their communities.147
- The Digital Empowerment Foundation is working in India with WhatsApp and community leaders to stop the spread of misinformation on social media.148