Trust is what makes the world go around. It is a carefully curated project, the result of a process of sedimentation of individual and collective histories, written and unwritten laws, and an interesting clash of various emotions. We trust that drivers will respect the traffic light indications, and that the lights themselves will work; we trust that the money we make today will have value tomorrow; we trust digital entities with sensitive personal information, and we trust experts when they state opinions and make recommendations. We generally trust that everyone has their own interest at heart, and they will work towards it while also being mindful of the public interest.

Physicality , 2015 by Sherry Karver

Physicality, 2015 by Sherry Karver

As Prof. Marek Kohn suggests, “trust must inhere in relationships between agents who are significantly unequal in power, resources, or autonomy.” In this sense, trust is a mechanism that accepts inequality as status quo, but remains, ideally, capable to call for its removal, when neither public nor individual interests are being served. Activist movements for equal rights for minorities are examples of such temporary, albeit lasting, crises in trust.

Nevertheless, the world does not need our trust to go around, and it will not stop when we seize trusting. Trust is not in itself a source of social life, and its role as catalyst for social relations points at it being a secular form of faith, augmented by and contingent on social and cultural norms, and a sense of safety maintained by routine. How is it, then, that the seemingly illusory power of trust has such a hold on our personal, social, and political life, and how do we make sense of its coexistence with mistrust?

From the series  North Korea: Secrets and Lies  by Thomas Van Houtryve.

From the series North Korea: Secrets and Lies by Thomas Van Houtryve.

Authoritarian regimes of the twentieth century elevated mistrust to the status of ideology, while the Cold War era normalised a sense of constant disbelief and expectation of betrayal; today´s surveillance culture seems to be the legacy of these decades of doubt as social norm. Many would argue that trust is fundamental to a liberal democracy, but it is worth questioning whether it is the fabric of democracy, or political life as such that needs trust. Popular elections do indeed capitalise on trust: projected trustworthiness of candidates is a priority for political PR, especially since a recent Gallup World poll suggests a steep decline of trust in government structures of the OECD countries (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development). However, mistrust is embedded in the functioning of democracy: the separation of democratic powers and the subsequent “checks and balances” systems assume mistrust as a necessary and structural attitude.

Probably the crucial point of debate with respect to trust and mistrust today refers to the media, originally the watchdog of democracy. The public trusts the media to mistrust power. The inequality that overflows our societies is a preamble to injustice, abuse, and aggression, and as we fight these modern plagues, we relegate the burden of constant mistrust to the media.

Alhurra TV, Broadcast Studio, Springfield, Virginia , 2007. From the series  An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar  by Taryn Simon.

Alhurra TV, Broadcast Studio, Springfield, Virginia, 2007. From the series An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar by Taryn Simon.

That mainstream journalism is failing those who put their trust in it seems an understatement. Corruption and political abuse often go unreported, and social realities are discursively constructed according to hidden agendas, embraced, rather than exposed by the media. Now, we seem to have reached the pinnacle of the media failing their role, as realities are not only ignored or poorly investigated, but even produced by the media and falsely presented as accurate and true. An institution historically charged with serving the trust of the public ends up breaking it with little self-regard or worry for consequences; we ask, then: whom can we trust to watch the watchdogs?


The title of this article is borrowed from “Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none.” - William Shakespeare

Words: Elena Stanciu

Cover Image: Rear Window, 1954 film poster, directed by Alfred Hitchcock