Trust: What is it, and How Do We Increase it Online?

July 24, 2023

Excerpt from a July 19 talk from Connie Moon Sehat at the National Conference on Health Communication, Marketing and Media

if you’ve spent time thinking about it, trust is in fact really hard to understand. Philosophers and social scientists have a hard time even clarifying what it is. So I’m going to give you two formulations around the idea of "what would it mean for me to trust you?"

One: To trust you is to rely on you, plus some kind of extra special factor (leaning on British philosopher Katherine Hawley) – the easiest thing to think about is that there are perhaps people you rely on but don’t necessarily feel that you trust. (Hawley would add that the extra special factor had to do with your fulfilling of a commitment.)

Two: Trust is a combination of a belief in your motivations and your competence. That is: I believe you have the right intentions toward me and that you are competent to do the thing that I trust you to do. That’s from the American political scientist Russell Hardin. Trust is in other words tied to trustworthiness, but a little difficult to know exactly how.

Here are some observations:

  • Trust is relational.
  • Trust requires risk
  • To ask for trust is potentially to ask a lot.
  • Trust is easier when you have repeated interactions with someone.

Given all these things, it’s no wonder that trust online is hard. If it’s relational, sometimes it’s hard to know if there’s another being on the other end to relate to.

So is it worth the risk? A lack of trust might in fact be more than OK. It’s appropriate that people should be asking many questions about information that they see, and in some cases, perhaps we’d wish they’d ask a few more.

Yet, while it’s so hard, we know the value of information that is accurate and can help keep our communities safe. So then think about the power that false information can have—there is one study that has shown that it can travel 6x as fast—and the power of repetition. It is so important that for the health of our loved ones, communities, and nation that trustworthy information continues to be shared.

In the end, to ask for trust is to ask people to rely on you. It is not just about clear communication; going down a trust-building journey is one that not just asks you to inform, or to demonstrate your competence and goodwill, but it asks you also to potentially change too, when you understand and connect.

Our work at ARTT has brought together a lot of information and a lot of possibilities to answer the question of "What can I say, how can we say it?" You can learn more about these types of responses on our Website, and about the ARTT Guide we're building to launch next year.