Distributing Trust Online

It is very tempting during times of crisis to attest that our trust in politics, institutions and even those closest to us is quickly evaporating. However, this is isn’t entirely accurate. Trust is evolving.

The idea of evolving trust might seem abstract for some people who may simply see it as some sort of mental bargaining. But, trust is profound and without it, we would constantly be left in the dark.

Visiting the doctor is a classic example: We trust that the doctor is qualified and has our health in their best interest. We rely that they will give us an accurate diagnosis and prescribe us with the appropriate medication so that we can recover properly and safely.

The Digital Age has presented technologies that have transformed our mechanisms of trust. There is now an expectation of transparency which can be lead to improved trust, but also increased scepticism.

One of the most prolific voices on the subject of trust is Rachel Botsman, an acclaimed author and Trust Fellow at Oxford University.

According to Botsman, trust can be defined as a “confident relationship with the unknown”1; a solution to the problems of risk that we face in everyday life.

In an interview for I – Global Intelligence for Digital Leaders2, Botsman described the three chapters of trust.

For most of human history, communities relied on face-to-face communication and personal reputation to establish trust in what’s known as local trust.

As communities grew and global trade became more achievable, civilisation entered the second chapter known as institutional trust. This is where trust could flow through institutions rather than just between people.

Institutional trust came with new ideas such as brands, insurance and contracts, which were all great for human progress. However, this required a top-down method of trust, a centralised trust that was controlled by the institutions.

In the Digital era, we have entered the third chapter of trust known as distributed trust which Botsman explains as “trust that flows through networks and marketplaces and platforms.”


In a nutshell, distributed trust is the idea that trust, value and power can flow directly between individuals at a massive scale without the need for traditional institutions.

Distributed trust is still in its infancy. We are starting to see the opportunities and dangers of the new model of trust that most now live by.

The growth and accessibility of technology has turned the top-down method on its head. Trust is therefore decentralised which increases the demand for transparency. Yet our trust in social media means that misinformation can be used to manipulate users.

While the prospect of a decentralised version of trust seems a sure step towards a ‘utopia’, there are inherent dangers that must be considered.

Botsman highlights that distributing trust also means distributing accountability. Meaning, when things go wrong – such as the mass dissemination of fake news on Facebook – there is no one place or person to attribute the blame.

Big tech needs to consider ethical approaches to distributed trust. The social responsibility of these companies needs to take precedence over competition. If this doesn’t happen, we could be on the road to the real evaporation of trust in civilisation, a world of trust apathy1.


  1. https://your-undivided-attention.simplecast.com/episodes/trust-falls
  2. https://www.i-cio.com/big-thinkers/rachel-botsman/item/the-rise-of-distributed-trust