Thirteen Russians have been indicted and charged with conspiring to undermine America’s electoral system by sowing discord among our citizenry through a sophisticated social media campaign of “informational warfare.” This is an incredible development in the on-going investigation of Russia’s role in the 2016 election. For example, according to the Justice Department’s report of the indictment, one Russian Instagram account called “Blacktivist” urged its followers to vote for Green Party candidate Jill Stein as a way to weaken support for Hillary Clinton. The posting ominously read: “Trust me. It’s not a wasted vote.” Russians have also used Twitter to take advantage of the recent mass murder in a Florida high school to encourage further division among Americans.
The ability to manipulate our electoral process and civil society, subtly or overtly, is linked to fundamental changes in the nature of trust which have serious implications for the health of our democracy. In Who Can You Trust, scholar Rachel Botsman describes how trust between individuals has evolved through three stages: local, institutional, and the current stage she calls distributed. Local trust existed in a pre-modern time when we lived in smaller communities where everyone knew each other. When technological changes in the late 19th through the early 20th century brought about modern industrialized society, trust shifted to institutions, and began to be mediated by experts who functioned as gatekeepers of facts, and therefore, truth.
However, two things have combined recently to weaken the institutional stage. First is a barrage of high-profile trust breaches across all institutional sectors including Watergate and other government scandals, child abuse in the Catholic Church, and corporate malfeasance, corruption, and negligence from Enron, to Deepwater Horizon, to predatory lending. Second is a revolution in information accessibility brought on by the digital age that has coincided with, and helped produce, increasing polarization of Americans in terms of how they get their news about the world around them, particularly political news and views. Social media platforms have streamlined algorithms to help many of us create what MIT scholar Nicholas Negroponte famously prophesied in 1995 as “The Daily Me”–a tailoring and filtering of information to confirm and legitimize what we already believe.
These developments have estranged us from societal institutions—government, journalism, religion, corporations, and even friends and families—and caused us to seek refuge in a new kind of “distributed” trust that Botsman describes as horizontal–mediated by technology. Sadly, we are now more likely to trust strangers on Uber, Airbnb, or TripAdvisor, rather than other people we actually know, but who are not in our tribe. This has left our public square barren of the social bonds necessary for a well-functioning democracy, and has opened the door wide for us to be taken advantage of by those who do not share our values, and desire to do us harm.