Mar 31, 2021 - Technology

Exclusive: Trust in tech craters

Data: Edelman Trust Barometer. Chart: Axios Visuals
Data: Edelman Trust Barometer. Chart: Axios Visuals

Trust in tech — including companies specializing in AI, VR, 5G and the internet of things — fell all around the world last year, the Edelman Trust Barometer found in a massive survey of 31,000 people in 27 countries.

Driving the news: The study, provided first to Axios, is a special tech edition of data collected for the annual Trust Barometer. All-time lows, going back to comparable Edelman polling in 2012, were hit in 17 of 27 countries, including the U.S., U.K., France, China, Japan, Thailand, Brazil and Mexico.

Why it matters: High public esteem has helped protect the tech industry from critics and regulators, but that shield is weakening.

Details: Edelman found that favorable views of the tech sector globally dropped six points overall, to 70 (on a scale of 100).

  • That's still ahead of other sectors of the business world, but represents a significant decline from prior years and comes as trust in corporations overall has risen.

In the U.S., trust in the tech sector dropped more precipitously, falling nine points, to an all-time low of 57.

  • That puts tech basically in the middle of the pack of industries — behind healthcare, retail, manufacturing but ahead of the energy, automotive and financial services sectors.
  • Social media companies, which weren't included as a category in past years, achieved a trust score of 46, putting them below all other categories of businesses in the rankings.

Edelman said the main reason for the trust fall is the increasingly "complicated" relationship between the public and technology — including the spread of misinformation, rising privacy alarm and bias in artificial intelligence.

  • In the U.S., tech fell from the "most trusted" sector in the 2020 study, to ninth in the latest survey (taken in October and November) — behind food and beverage, health, transportation, education, consumer packaged goods, professional services, manufacturing and retail.
  • The study found that 52% of people surveyed — including 50% in the U.S. — fear that automation or other innovations will take their jobs.

Globally, look at the wipeout:

  • Trust in artificial-intelligence companies, and also internet-of-things businesses, fell in 25 of 27 countries.
  • Trust in "cleantech" firms fell in 23 of 27 countries.
  • Trust in the virtual-reality industry fell in 22 of 27 countries.
  • Trust in the 5G sector fell in 21 of 27 countries.

As a "roadmap for restoring trust," Edelman urges businesses to embrace a mandate to lead: "CEOs must lead on issues from responsible AI and automation to upskilling. Act first, talk after."

Edelman suggests principles to help Big Tech increase trust:

  • "Shared prosperity" through new jobs and skills.
  • Codifying trust through "fairness" and "explainability."
  • Increased diversity, equity and inclusion.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with further details.

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