Posted by: Ray Brescia | December 16, 2020

Trust, Technology and Social Movements

Police surveillance of Black Lives Matter shows the danger technology poses  to democracy – School of Computing

In two op-ed pieces in the Washington Post over the last week, the issue of trust was front and center.  In the first, George P. Shultz, long-time Washington insider and political mensch, on the occasion of his 100th birthday, noted that the most important lesson he has learned in his 100 years on the planet is the critical role trust plays in society in general and politics in particular.  In the second, political scientist Pippa Norris describes the central role that confidence in institutions plays in the legitimacy of democracy itself, which is another way of saying we need trust to make our democracy work.  In my own research, I have looked at the role of trust in movements that seek to advance social change.  In The Future of Change: How Technology Shapes Social Revolutions, I discuss the ways that social movements, over time, have harnessed the most recent advances in communications technology to help bring about social change—from the printing press to social media.  But a key component of those efforts was not the technology, but the power to connect people—to construct human relationships and bonds of trust—that those technologies made possible.  As examples of this phenomenon, the postal system, telegraph and telephone of the 19th century helped connect communities like never before, but when those communities rose up to advocate for social change, they often did so through grassroots organizations that formed into local chapters where individual members of those organizations could meet in a face-to-face fashion.  The Seneca Falls Convention and the Abolitionist Movement were the products of this mode of organizing.  In turn, local chapters formed the component parts of larger networks that spanned the nation.  But the trust and social capital that emerged from those chapters served as the fuel that sparked lasting social change, like the adoption of the 19th Amendment that granted women the right to vote, or the civil rights victories of the 1960s.  Today, social media can enrage and enflame, but it can also help us find like-minded people, share information, and coordinate action.  The Black Lives Matter protests of the summer had their origins in incidents that spread on social media like wildfire.  But it was in the streets, even in the midst of a pandemic, where relationships were formed, alliances forged, and the possibility of real change emerged.  While I would certainly agree that trust is critical to politics, as Schultz believes, or democracy, as Norris argues, it is also essential to social movements and serves as a key ingredient of any effort to bring about positive social change.


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