News flash everyone: public trust in tech companies isn’t exactly thriving. While it doesn’t take an expert to smell the bad blood that’s been brewing between tech and its users, research released this week from Edelman provides new, clear insights into just how much the relationship has soured over the years.
U.S. trust in tech fell 24 points over the past decade according to the Edelman report with declines reported in just about every demographic group, regardless of age, gender, or income. Though trust in tech fell in 14 of the 22 markets Edelman’s surveyed, the U.S. stood apart with the most significant declines of them all. Tech still maintained a higher level of trust than other sectors of the economy but the trends overwhelmingly point one direction, and it ain’t up.
Trust in tech was low amongst most groups of people but was the worst amongst older adults, self identifying Republicans, and lower income earners. Just 51% of adults aged 55 and up said they trusted tech compared to 57% of people between the ages of 18-34. High income earners were 10 percentage points more likely to express trust in tech than lower income earners. Republicans, likely fueled by claims of tech censorship and liberal bias amplified during the Trump administration, were 16% less trusting of tech than Democrats.
Edelman’s Trust Barometer attributed these declines, in part, to people increasing grouping typically well received hardware and software companies in with famously low-trust social media firms. Nearly 91% of people surveyed in this year’s report said they considered social media and digital applications part of the tech industry which the report suggests ends up dragging down trust in the industry overall.
So, to all the scrappy headphone and keyboard makers out there, sorry y’all, blame Facebook and TikTok.
Social media wasn’t the only factor for the bad vibes though. Concerns over data security, cybersecurity, rising misinformation, deep fakes, and the alleged politicization of tech all also play a role in degrading trust. All of that’s potentially bad news for tech companies because, as the report notes, lower levels of trust tends to translate to lower levels of tech adoption. That could mean less money for tech companies.
American respondents were highly distrustful of nine out of twelve tech sub sectors surveyed in the report. Only 36% of U.S. respondents, for example, expressed trust in self-driving vehicles. An even lower share (30%) said they trusted cryptocurrencies. Oddly, health technology and 5G were the only two tech sub sectors where a majority of U.S. respondents actually express trust in.
The Edelman report builds off a growing body of research in recent years highlighting the tech industry’s struggles to maintain its grasp on public trust. Polling conducted last year by the Public Affairs Council and Morning Consult illustrate the industry’s precipitous downward spiral. After ranking number one in trustworthiness among nine major industries between 2012-2017, tech suddenly fell to fourth place in 2018. The tech industry dropped down two more rungs by 2021. The only three industries less trusted in that report were big pharma, healthcare, and the energy industry.
A 2020 survey of U.S. adults conducted by the Knight Foundation and Gallup, meanwhile, provides some specific examples for why the public simply can’t stand tech. At the time, 74% of U.S. adults, including a majority of Republicans, (gasp) said they were very concerned about the spread of misinformation on the internet. Another 68% of adults said they were very concerned about their digital privacy, while 47% said they believed tech causes more problems than it solves. Maybe most tellingly, 60% of those respondents said they thought technology did more to divide society than unite it.
It might seem hard to believe now after reading all those figures, but there was a time not too long ago where the overwhelming narrative surrounding Silicon Valley firms was one of gushing optimism. Facebook and Twitter, now credited with exacerbating harmful political movements worldwide through its amplification machine, were nearly universally praised in the early 2010s as a means to foster connectivity, bridge cultural divides and even bring peace in the Middle East. Clearly times have changed.
Though sources can disagree on exact timelines, the so-called “techlash” started simmering in the U.S. following the 2020 presidential election with activists and lawmakers drawing renewed security to social media platform’s potential impact on elections and election related information. That tech cynicism snowballed in 2018 thanks to several high profile privacy blunders including Facebook’s notorious Cambridge Analytica scandal, and antitrust investigations digging into Big Tech’s monopoly power, some of which resulted in executives uncomfortably testifying for hours before Congress. A flurry of controversial, high profile firings, complex examples of algorithmic bias weaving their way into people’s daily lives, and persistent accusation of tech censorship from the political right all likely contributed to the resentment pie as well.