For years, tech has been the nation’s most trusted sector — by a long shot. But after more than a year of conducting our daily lives over Zoom and becoming increasingly reliant on devices for human connection, people have begun to lose their faith in the technology sector at a significant pace. Now, with distrust posing a threat to the market and consumers becoming impatient, tech companies everywhere are going to have to make a serious effort to earn back their once-positive reputation.
What’s Going on With Tech?
The recently released 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer Tech Sector Report painted a bleak picture of Americans’ trust in the tech sector. In 2020, technology was the United States’ most trusted sector. In 2021, food and beverage took over the top spot and tech has plummeted to number nine, reaching an all-time low and dipping below the neutral threshold into distrust for the first time ever. And although the drop was more pronounced in the US than it was anywhere else, we weren’t alone, with people’s faith in tech dropping in 25 of the 27 countries surveyed, and 16 other countries also reaching all-time lows.
This dramatic shift comes on the heels of what was undoubtedly one of the most socially turbulent years our country (and possibly the world) has ever faced, and we have a sneaking suspicion that the two things just might be related.
Why the Sudden Change of Heart?
Seeing as we are so reliant on technology to do what feels like just about everything nowadays, it seems a bit counterintuitive to think that we have suddenly lost faith in the industry as a whole. But just because we rely on tech when doing our jobs or going to school does not mean that we see the world’s tech giants as virtuous entities. Still, we used to trust them. So, what changed?
Over the past year, we’ve experienced a global pandemic that took millions of lives, countless jobs, forced the entire world into lockdown, and wreaked havoc on the economy. Without the ability to conduct much of our regular routines in person, society turned to technology to remedy its problems, diving head-first into a digital reality that quickly took the place of any previous face-to-face interaction.
We are now more reliant on technology than ever before, which has inflamed people’s concerns of tech taking over human roles because the possibility of their fears coming true has become eerily realistic. Edelman reports that as of January 2021, 53% of people in the US worry that the pandemic will accelerate the rate at which companies replace human workers with AI and robots. This number jumped seven points from May of 2020, when only 46% of the country had this same worry.
In addition, we continue to place a high value on consumer privacy, more so than before. Within a span of just eight months, the amount of people willing to give up more of the personal health and location tracking information to the government (via technology) than they normally would in order to help track and contain the spread of COVID-19 fell from 46% to 44%. This drop suggests that not only are we more aware of what personal information we are giving out and to whom, but also that we desire authority over our own data for fear of misuse by those collecting it.
Political Divide Raises Concerns
November’s presidential election exacerbated existing political tensions over a variety of social issues that have been at the forefront of our society for nearly 11 months now. As a result, we have become completely polarized in our beliefs, making it extremely difficult to find any source of unbiased information or news. This is reflected in the fact that public trust in all information sources, including search engines, traditional media, owned media, and social media, has reached record lows, with the sources’ trust levels hitting 56%, 53%, 41%, and 35% respectively.
What’s more, technology is becoming increasingly powerful in ways that take misinformation to a whole new level. Take Deepfakes, for example, a type of synthetic media so realistic that it tricked the world into thinking that Tom Cruise was on Tik Tok, spurring further worry around the dangers of fake news.
This distrust stems from tech companies’ reluctance to take responsibility for the misinformation that their products are used to produce or allow to be spread across the internet, despite knowing that they are the public’s main source of information.
How Can Tech Turn This Around?
If the tech sector wants to survive and be a functioning market, it must figure out a way to change how people currently view it. The common thread between all of the different reasons for our dwindling confidence in tech is the fear of losing control — losing control over our jobs, our personal information, and the information we consume on a daily basis. This fear has been somewhat present for a long time, but over the last year it has been exploited in ways that have caused it to grow exponentially, which is why our trust in tech took such a nose-dive. Thus, to regain people’s faith, tech companies need to work toward diminishing this fear as much as possible by showing us that they truly care.
- Speak Up: Showing people you care about them requires understanding what they care about, which means tech companies need to do a better job of keeping up with the issues that are most important to today’s consumers. This starts with having a CEO that isn’t afraid to take a stance. Edelman found that 86% of people expect CEOs to publicly speak out about one or more of the following societal challenges: pandemic impact (59%), job automation (51%), societal issues (43%), local community issues (40%). By establishing their social awareness and willingness to bear their beliefs publicly, tech companies can instill confidence in consumers that they care about more than just making money.
- Take Action: A CEO’s word is good, but tech companies can’t just talk the talk, they also need to walk the walk. Proving their commitment through action is how they will really win people over. When businesses perform well in embracing sustainable practices, having a robust COVID-19 health and safety response, driving economic prosperity, and valuing long-term thinking over short-term profits, the percent likelihood of people trusting them should increase. If tech companies can demonstrate a genuine, actionable commitment to solving real societal issues, it will reassure people that when their CEOs speak up, they’re not just spewing empty promises.
- Be Transparent: A trustworthy person is someone who you know is telling the truth and doesn’t try to cover up their missteps. And tech has clearly taken a few missteps recently. Going forward, tech companies need to start being more transparent and straightforward about their products and the information they put out. They need to own their narrative — the good, bad, and the ugly — and openly communicate with consumers, empathizing with people’s fears while also reassuring them that technology can do more good than bad.
Taking these steps won’t be a quick process, and neither will regaining people’s confidence. Trust is hard to gain and easy to lose, but it is an essential ingredient in a functioning market, and the technology sector must now do everything in its power to get back in people’s good graces.