In democratic societies, trust in the provenance and justification of policy measures are essential for their implementation. Trust in scientific expertise—both in experts and in scientific institutions—has become a contested subject in the wake of recent political and social developments, particularly the emergence of populist sentiments. At the same time, newspapers and journalists have always played an important part in the shaping of public trust in public debates. However, the recent contestations also draw attention to questions of trust in media organizations. Are they fulfilling their role as watchdogs of democracy and mediators of informed public debate? Can they be considered ‘pillars of institutional trust’ themselves?
Over the past decade, the traditional media landscape has substantially transformed into a globalized, technologically mediated and commoditized environment—a transformation that coincided with increasingly volatile levels of trust in institutions, whether academia, politics, governments, or legacy media. Online sources for information, including information about various areas of scientific expertise, provide new, low-threshold opportunities to communicate. Social media, blogs and vlogs offer unlimited and boundless sources for the public to inform themselves quickly, mostly free of charge and everywhere. The credibility and hence trustworthiness of such sources are difficult to assess. It is often unclear who says what in which context and based on what authority or expertise, particularly if information is decontextualized from its original source and distributed through social media.
The problem of trust in (social) media has been further exacerbated by the persistent problem of fake news and disinformation. A growing social media environment increasingly undercuts established societal/sectoral systems of trust, accountability and responsibility. Automated accounts (‘social bots’) as well as malicious human users (‘trolls’) play an important role in contemporary forms of disinformation. Reinforced by the anonymity of most online communication, such phenomena may bias users’ perception of the distribution of opinions, views and evidence. Meanwhile, social media platforms have attempted to refurbish trust in their online channels by resorting to human and algorithmic gatekeeping, with so far mixed results.
Some of the most heated global discussions of our time directly implicate scientific knowledge claims. In recent years, the debate on climate change was a popular area of trust contestation, pitting climate change deniers against climate scientists and other experts. In 2020, the corona-virus and its aftermath add a new stress test to public trust in science, politics, and media. These (online) contestations show how geopolitical and ideological battles come to target not just political and scientific institutions, but also legacy media or a combination of all three, thus raising the stakes of understanding public trust under changing conditions.
This conference highlights the question of trust in a changing media landscape, addressing the following three general questions:
1 – How does trust in expertise play out in the context of a changing media landscape, in particular the transformation from legacy media (newspapers, tv) to digital platforms (social media, blogs, vlogs)?
2- Can we develop a better understanding of conditions of trust and trustworthiness in the context of digital platforms and social media? How may conditions differ in various (European) countries or in the (geopolitical) contexts of different continents?
3 – What is the impact of digital media and its users on (institutional) trust in governance that is rooted in scientific evidence and fact-finding?
Possible topics may include (but are not restricted to):
- Analytical perspectives on, and empirical investigations of, public debates concerning the value of scientific expertise, e.g. in the area of climate change and the corona-pandemic.
- Theoretical and practice-based studies on the (changing) conditions for anchoring public trust in institutions and professionals; the ethics of digital communication.
- Empirical and investigative studies on the role of legacy media vis-à-vis digital platforms in undermining or enhancing trust in social institutions.