Does public discourse affect levels of trust?

Stefan Reichmann
After studying public discourse on cybersecurity and privacy in selected European regions, the question has come up to what extent discourse dynamics affect trust in the Internet infrastructure. How do (media) discourses impinge on levels of concern?

Importance for Trustworthiness

Total votes: 87


Trust in information and communication technologies (ICT) has become a matter of growing interest as EU citizens are increasingly engaging in the digital realm. Eurobarometer surveys show that in 2017 70% of EU citizens used the Internet every day (while 19% never used the internet). 50% of European citizens used online social networks daily and of those daily users, 46% also actively posted content. 60% of respondents used the Internet for buying goods and services and 58% for online banking.

However, the widespread adoption of ICT products and services comes with sociocultural variances in public opinions and attitudes across Europe. These generate a diversity of reactions towards developments in ICT. A majority of citizens generally avoid disclosing personal information online and are concerned about becoming a victim of cybercrime (e.g. in 2017 69% were concerned about discovering malicious software on Internet-enabled devices and about identity theft, respectively). But cybercrime is just one of three major areas of concern. EU citizens are also concerned that their online personal information is not kept secure by websites (73%) and public authorities (65%). All in all an increasing general concern about the misuse of personal data can be observed. Moreover, this concern seems to be closely linked to contextual variables of ICT engagement (such as perceived trustworthiness of providers or national authorities), more than to specific attributes of the ICT product or service involved.

Public opinion is thus subject to macro influences such as media discourse. D3.2 studied aspects of public discourse on cybersecurity, cybercrime and personal in four European countries (UK, Spain, Germany, and Austria). The aim was to develop a preliminary interpretive reconstruction of dominant discourse topics. The establishment and general uptake of ICT in European societies does not depend solely on questions of functionality, technical security and usability. In particular, respect for ethical and legal standards is increasingly becoming a decisive factor (e.g. respect for human rights). These standards are by definition abstract, which makes them difficult to study directly. Public (media) discourse can act as a viable proxy here. Media coverage of threats and incidents of cybercrime, personal data misuse and state surveillance activities generate the context for public opinion formation.

The most striking observations concern the ambivalent role of state authorities when it comes to cybersecurity, the apparent disunity of public opinion with respect to appropriate cybersecurity measures (a topic also pertinent to issues of privacy and personal data), and the issues surrounding privacy and personal data management where a shift can be observed from privacy in terms of fundamental rights (protection from harm) towards privacy in terms of data ownership; this discourse is based on the construction of a data subject separated from his/her personal data. End-users are being addressed as the most important (and weakest) link in cybersecurity matters; their awareness and skills are in constant need of amendment and improvement.


Where to go from here? The analyses delivered as part of the are preliminary; therefore, they arguably raise more questions than they answer. The researchers have identified the following possible routes for further research:

  1. One important variable to take into account in future discourse research is political orientation (of the media outlet in question). There are a considerable number of media studies concerning e.g. the Snowden revelations (which were covered in part in D3.2), which take the form of comparative analyses either concerning different national newspapers of different political stakes or international newspapers of comparable attitude.

  2. The present studies were limited (due to limited resources) to “traditional” media outlets with an online presence. However, discourse is obviously not restricted to traditional media. For future research, it would therefore be interesting to take into account a) user generated content in traditional media (e.g. comment sections of the relevant articles in addition to the article content), b) discussions in online social platforms, e.g. on Facebook as reactions to news articles, or on Twitter (user-generated content).

  3. Due to limited language abilities of the researchers, the Spain use-case has not been analysed in appropriate depth. It would be worthwhile to study public opinion concerning personal data in Spain by taking into account possible nuance in reporting (e.g. comparing different media outlets or different styles of journalism).

As a starting point, we recommend taking one of the national discourses discussed and amending the analysis by taking into account a) user-generated content (the comments sections of the respective articles) and b) by taking into account a representative sample of the media landscape of that country (to account for political orientation and different styles of journalism).

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