Reigniting Trust

Tension in Trust

Will Americans choose authenticity over expertise?

Take a tour through the most popular YouTube channels in recent years, some of which have more than 100 million subscribers, and you might be surprised at what you see.

While well-known music artists occasionally crack the top 10, brand names and celebrities are generally in short supply. Online personalities and enthusiasts discussing subjects such as video games or crafts tend to dominate. This type of “influencer,” whether on YouTube or other social media platforms, is likely to play an increasing role in how people consume information moving forward.

Benjamin Johnson
Benjamin Johnson

“I think more people are spending more time in these types of online communities or with these types of online personalities,” said Benjamin Johnson, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Advertising at the University of Florida. “They have relationships. People will listen to influencers or people they have developed trust in. I expect they will be consequential.”

Johnson studies the impact of online influencers as part of his work with the UF’s Consortium on Trust in Media and Technology. His research could yield significant insight into how people trust information sources.

| Click here to read a Q&A with Benjamin Johnson. |

“I think you will probably see an increase in people putting their confidence in sources on the basis of being real, authentic or rough around the edges—and rejecting expertise,” he said.

Authenticity Versus Expertise

Johnson said that Americans may gravitate toward sources that appear authentic, meaning they have a genuine look and feel and are void of any obvious bias or agenda. An example might be video that is a bit rough, rather than slickly produced.

A large amount of expertise, however, is not necessarily a requirement to earn trust. As Johnson explains it, “You might really trust your friends. They are very authentic, and they are very genuine and real. But they are not necessarily experts. When someone is an expert, you might think that they are very knowledgeable, they have training, they know a lot. But maybe they are not authentic in the same way.”

The question that Johnson is exploring is which of these traits, authenticity or expertise, may win out when it comes to gaining trust. “What I am doing is looking at situations where trust and expertise may actually exist in opposition to each other,” Johnson said. “There is this really interesting tension that exists.”

One particular case Johnson highlights is what happens when online influencers who have built a loyal audience around hobbies or interests venture into politics. The case could be similar to well-liked celebrities who wade into politics.

“Will those people be especially effective deliverers of messages about politics because they have credibility and because they have a shared interest with the audience?” he said. “We are looking at the connection between non-political parties trying politics, and what happens when celebrities try politics. A lot of celebrities enter the political fray to talk about issues. Sometimes it is very effective. Sometimes it backfires. And so we are trying to tease out this influencer process of talking about politics, similar to celebrities doing endorsements or making political statements.”

‘So Many More Voices’

Overall, Johnson says there is much yet to be learned about online influencers and how they impact trust.

“There is a lot more work to be done in terms of mapping out, what is trust? What is credibility? How does it differ between different types of sources in different situations? And I think it is a moving target, too. I think trust and credibility have been altered in a lot of ways because of technological change.”

Because Americans have access to more channels of information than ever before, understanding how trust and credibility are changing could be a long journey.

“We have access to so many more voices,” he said. “We have a bigger influx of people talking. There is more competition for attention. That obligates the end user to do a lot of work to figure out who is trustworthy. There has been a lot of upheaval in terms of credibility and trust. So I think we still have a lot of work to do.”