Rachel Botsman is the author of “Who Can You Trust? How Technology Brought Us Together and Why It Might Drive Us Apart,” and the first Trust Fellow at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School. When she thinks What the Future, she’s curious how trust and truth intersect.
Matt Carmichael: Can we believe what we’re learning is the truth from media and institutions we don’t trust?
Rachel Botsman: If you actually get to the heart of trust, it’s not about what you believe but why you need to believe it. We often focus on the information or the people or the facts, the “what we believe” versus the motivations. Distrust has actually become a negative term versus thinking of distrust as something that can protect us by holding us back from placing our confidence and faith in the wrong people and the wrong information. I’m not talking about a type of distrust that is completely blanket and toxic. I’m talking about a type of distrust that gives you pause.
Carmichael: We fielded a survey that asked people where and how they are willing to call out misinformation. Personal settings were preferred to online.
Botsman: In terms of the private versus public settings, it’s where you have the most influence on someone in terms of shifting an opinion. If you want to change what friends and colleagues think, pointing out something that they’ve read is not true is rarely going to lead to a positive result. But by helping someone think about why they need to believe that piece of information, you can have a really different conversation.
Carmichael: What are some of the answers you get if you start that conversation?
Botsman: To answer it very simply, it’s often a motivation to fit in or to stick out: “I need to believe this because I want to avoid drawing attention to myself and I need to fit into this group.” Which is why if you are trying to attack or change a belief around something that has to do with someone’s social identity or the tribe that they belong to, good luck to you.
Carmichael: Part of the power of the truth comes from this willingness of people to fight for it and argue on its behalf. So how can people or brands build their own trust so they’re seen as trustworthy purveyors of truth?
Botsman: The most important thing is integrity. And what I mean by that is you have to be very clear that your intentions and motives are aligned with the people or the citizens or the customers or whoever it may be that that information is serving. If you are an organization and you are putting out information and, in some way, that information is self-serving, that’s one of the easiest ways to damage trust.
Carmichael: How do brands go about building the kind of trust necessary to be able to tell their own truth to their customers?
Botsman: I hate it when brands say, “We’re going to build trust.” Like they’re going to build loyalty or they’re going to build awareness. The reason why this is so key is because so many of these things they do in marketing and advertising and outreach is about them being in control. Trust doesn’t work that way. Trust is given to you from your customers, and you have to earn it.
Carmichael: What can brands do in these “suspicious times,” as you call them?
Botsman: The number one thing I would advise brands to do right now is to over-index on integrity and empathy. I don’t think enough brands are listening. I don’t think enough brands still feel like they care. I think it’s about them and being reactive and pushing stuff out and it feeling very, very transactional.
Carmichael: We’ve seen that in our data, too. As the social justice movement was regaining its strength in June there was an awful lot of demand from consumers, for brands, not to just say things, but to really prove they’re doing them.
Botsman: There’s a shift between looking good, doing good and being good, right? Like looking good was one area of branding. Doing good was the whole sustainability era, and now it’s about being good, and how you behave.
Carmichael: For news organizations, brands and government agencies, when they talk about trust, they often want to turn to transparency as a solution. You debunk that idea. Why?
Botsman: I define trust as a confident relationship with the unknown. If you need things to be transparent, you’re in a low trust state. Think about tracker apps parents put on their kids’ phones. The intention may be to keep your child safe, but the way that feels to the other person is that you don’t trust them. Companies and entire sectors like the media, technology, financial institutions think the way they are going to fix their trust problems is like a magic wand with transparency. It’s a very dangerous promise to make because what you’re basically promising is information disclosure, and you are going to get to a point where there are certain things that you cannot share. So, it either has zero impact or a negative impact over time.
Carmichael: We’re in such polarized times. How do we fix all of this?
Botsman: When there is a high degree of uncertainty in our lives, the human response is to go to the familiar and the known. We can’t even contemplate something different or something unknown or an alternative response because the biological thing right now is just to go back into your cave that feels very safe and familiar. The response to uncertainty and what that does to whom we trust and how we trust is something people aren’t talking about enough.