Digital trust needs a reboot–and it’s coming

Jamie Smith Jamie Smith


August 30, 2023

A young influencer recording a video

Our digital economy is crying out for a breakthrough in digital trust.  

Consumers are desperate for it. Governments are taking regulatory measures to address it. And corporations, policymakers, and individuals alike are talking about how we need a safer web.  

But while brands prioritize digital growth, digital trust often takes the back seat. As long as businesses view investments in digital trust is seen as a cost center and not a revenue driver, progress will be limited. 

And that means something has to change. 

The good news is that we’re about to witness a revolution in digital trust. Individuals will regain control over their personal information. They’ll be empowered to share this data directly with trusted peers and organizations in a safe and data-minimizing manner, rather than relying on clumsy and privacy-invasive data collection around the edges. Critically, this new approach will lead to an explosion of digital growth that will benefit individuals and brands alike.  

How we got here: the thorny issue of digital trust 

Businesses have been hard at work on ‘digital transformation’ for years. And they’ve made excellent strides to improve services, business outcomes, and the lives of customers. But to a large extent, progress has been restricted for two main reasons.  

First, the very infrastructure of the internet (and later the web) was built without requirements for trust. Participants of the earliest computer networks didn’t put in place ways to handle bad actors, misinformation, or digital identity as we might think of it today. As the reach and force of the network grew, so did the volume of information shared and its adoption by every part of society.  

We’re still living with that trust gap. No scalable, easy ways to know who’s on the other side of a connection. If we can really trust our digital conversations. 

Second, and as a result of this, businesses today are constantly forced to make a ‘trade off’ between digital trust and growth.  

More growth: when businesses want to drive more transactions and value, they must remove friction. They offer seamless online experiences so that anyone (or any ‘thing’ – including bots) can participate. More data flows, unleashing more value and more digital opportunities. But at the same time, businesses introduce more risk. They don’t always know who they’re dealing with. Misinformation becomes rampant. We expose our systems and processes to abuse. And we have to live alongside untrusted people, untrusted organizations, and untrusted transactions. Yes, data volumes and innovation go up, but digital trust goes down. 

… vs more trust: When businesses try to address this digital trust gap, they end up adding friction. They only let in the people, organizations, and data they can verify. They minimize risk. They protect transactions. And they protect the data… even though they need to collect even more of it, and much of it personal. So digital trust goes up, but fewer people are able to participate, and less data flows. This all means less innovation and less growth. 

So it seems that we can’t have both. It’s a trade-off. We must choose between digital growth and digital trust.  

But is that true? And is there a way through?    

It matters because digital life now touches everyone, everywhere 

The world’s shift to digital over the last ten years has been nothing short of breathtaking. 95% of American teens now have a smartphone, and it’s reported that up to 40% of ‘Gen Z’ now start their search on Instagram or TikTok–the latter of which is a digital platform that didn’t exist outside of China until 2016. 

What used to be waiting in line to open a bank account has become a series of online forms. What used to take hours of manual check-in at the airport has become a series of taps on an airline’s mobile app. We now talk of community conversation in the ‘digital public square,’ and of retailers offering ‘multi-channel’ experiences dominated by ecommerce and shopping apps. 

And the pace of change of these tectonic digital shifts is only accelerating. Half of young people now say they are online ‘almost constantly.’ 

We shop online. We talk online. We live online. 

It’s no surprise that brands are moving to become digital by default. Mobile by default. And data-driven by default. Every business across the digital landscape has been forced to fundamentally rethink payments, customer experiences, and messaging. The macro shift to digital has been an electric shock to customer relationships everywhere. 

Today’s social media platforms are one of the best examples of digital services that didn’t exist–couldn’t exist–before the internet. They are where brands now go to connect with customers. Where politicians announce their latest campaign. And where businesses manage customer support.  

And even this narrow digital sector is itself a massively changing landscape. One that’s as hard to keep up with as it is to comprehend the scale of what’s changing. For example, half of the top ten most-used social media platforms didn’t exist eight years ago, and the youngest reached 100M users within months, not years. 

Predictably, social media has become the public platform to connect with audiences. The famous now have a direct channel to their fans–to promote, announce, and discuss. And of course, to respond to any rumors or misinformation directly, rather than having to use the traditional press to get their message out.  

Social platforms are now the place where today’s discussions happen. Where life happens. Where customers rave and complain about products. Where citizens campaign and argue about government policies. And where any and all types of discussion take place, no matter how near or far apart those participants may be.  

Indeed, the larger platforms have become pillars of civic and democratic participation. They have enabled grassroots movements, used to expose and fight oppressive governments, and empowered journalists, whistleblowers, and suppressed minorities to speak out (often under an alias) with a reduced risk of censorship and persecution.  

But a lack of digital trust is holding these platforms back 

While these huge digital platforms have become a bedrock for social change and community engagement, many of the larger social networks are stagnating, facing this exact challenge around growth versus digital trust. It’s now a real ‘hot-button’ issue, especially around the idea of anonymity online.  

Should they enable and empower anonymous voices to speak truth to power while turning a blind eye to armies of misinformation robots and political interference in the name of protecting free speech? The platform operators have largely sided with free speech and anonymity. But we’re left with deep levels of digital mistrust, and perhaps more importantly, difficulties with the commercial model keeping these services free: advertising.  

Brands have long seen the value in social media’s reach, but they have become increasingly aware that much of this reach may be inflated by bots and other fake accounts. There are also growing concerns around brand safety when an ad may be shown side-by-side misinformation, offensive content, or even accounts impersonating the very brand in question. 

As users, it’s challenging to know exactly who we’re dealing with online. Or more precisely, what we’re dealing with online. Is it a human? A bot farm? Is this person spewing medical advice really a doctor? 

Of course, these problems don’t stop with social media. The same risk of ‘not knowing who’s on the other end’ applies to our phone calls, text messages, emails, and nearly every other digital interaction: Is it really my bank messaging me? Is it really that same business I trust asking me to reset my account? How do I know these product reviews are genuine? 

The global cost of cybercrime was estimated to be over $8TN this year. Brands are spending millions to fend off bots from their digital channels, to check whether it’s really their customers on their websites and apps. It all adds friction, kills customer conversion, and bloats business overheads. It impacts the very business case that promised digital channels would be leaner, smarter, and more profitable.  

A key aspect of these cybercrimes is digital advertising fraud, which in 2022 alone was estimated to cost businesses $100BN. When companies don’t know who they’re interacting with online, they don’t really know who is viewing or clicking on their advertisements. It’s all leading to unnecessary business costs and painful customer experiences. It’s a lose-lose.  

And it’s all because of this same root cause: this lack of digital trust.  


How bad has the bot problem become? 

While it’s hard to quantify just how many bots a platform like Facebook or Twitter may have, studies have estimated that anywhere between 5-45% of accounts are automated.   

Below are some other figures that show just how ubiquitous bots have become: 

6.5 Bn 

 Fake accounts were deleted by Facebook in 2021 alone (Meta) 

$81 Bn 

 The global cost of ad fraud and ‘click bots’ in 2022 (Statista) 



 Of tweeted links are posted by suspected bots (Pew Research) 


But it’s not all bad news. For the first time in history, digital growth and trust can coexist. We have the technology and a series of new web standards to have our cake and it too. A reboot to digital trust is coming – and Gen is leading the way. 

In my next post, I’ll examine what this solution looks like and how it starts with putting individuals back in control of their data and online experiences. 

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