The internet has become a "low-trust society"

Writing in Wired, Zeynep Tufekci (previously) discusses how the internet has become a "low-trust society," where fake reviews, fraud, conspiracies and disinformation campaigns have burdened us all with the need to investigate every claim and doubt every promise, at enormous costs to time and opportunity.

Low-trust societies aren't fun places to live. As Tufekci writes, "You expect to be cheated, often without recourse. You expect things not to be what they seem and for promises to be broken, and you don't expect a reasonable and transparent process for recourse. It's harder for markets to function and economies to develop in low-trust societies. It's harder to find or extend credit, and it's risky to pay in advance."

I think Tufekci is right here, and moreover, I think that the low-trust society of the internet is a reflection of a reduction in the amount of trust in our society at large. On the one hand, you have decades of treating poor people as presumptive criminals, now codified in a set of automated systems that produce a "digital poorhouse," that punishes truthfulness and requires everyone in the system to lie to fit the algorithm's expectations.

On the other hand, you have the stacking of regulatory position with henhouse foxes, business leaders who are drafted in to regulate their former colleagues (something that Trump accelerated, but which reflects a bipartisan consensus).

Meanwhile, inequality creates rampant corruption and even when the rich and powerful are caught red-handed, they walk away without any consequences.

To live in a high-trust society is to be able to drink your tap water, call the cops when you need help, and rely on your bank not to steal from you. The loss of trust is an offline-online phenomenon, and it is a crisis that threatens our very species.

Ultimately, people in low-trust societies may welcome an authoritarian ruler, someone who will impose order and consequences from on high. Sure, the tyrant is also corrupt and cruel; but the alternative is the tiring, immiserating absence of everyday safety and security. During the reign of Kublai Khan, it was said that "a maiden bearing a nugget of gold on her head could wander safely throughout the realm." The Great Khan required absolute submission, but even repression has some seeming perks.

In the digital world, the big platforms— Apple, Facebook, Google—sometimes exercise a Khan-like role in the way they impose order within their realms. Google nukes content farms; Apple rules its App Store with an iron grip; Amazon's return policy—generous to customers but stringent to vendors—serves as a check against fraud; Facebook and Twitter have been pressured to de-platform the most noxious purveyors of conspiracy theories and fake news. And when they crack down, people cheer.

But we should be leery of entrusting power to corporate giants that are largely unaccountable. If you innocently run afoul of them, you may have little or no recourse. A suspension from Facebook can cut you off from friends, allies, and audiences; losing access to Amazon or the App Store can destroy livelihoods. Often all a wrongfully barred person can do is fill out forms and look desperately for a personal contact at the company—much the way people in poorer countries look to family members in the state bureaucracy to solve problems. That's what a low-trust society looks like.

The Internet Has Made Dupes—and Cynics—of Us All [Zeynep Tufekci/Wired]