4 postdoctoral research projects

We defined four interlocking research collaborations in the context of the RPA. Each research project will be spearheaded by a postdoctoral researcher. The postdoctoral researchers will be co-hosted by the collaborating faculties. The postdoctoral researchers will be working under the supervision of the RPA directors.

Project #1: Trust development by digital infrastructures

Host faculties of the postdoctoral researcher: FMG + FdR

Duration: 24 months

Project #1 and #2 investigates, in tandem, how individuals develop trust within and towards digital infrastructures.

Project #1 explores how individuals develop and calibrate their trust towards other actors (individuals, groups, and organizations) while using various digital infrastructures, such as reputation-based platforms, blockchain based smart-contract and automated enforcement systems, and recommender systems. The research investigates how the development and dynamics of trust relations between individuals, and individuals and various institutions are influenced by the way digital infrastructures shape the communication / information environment (i.e., via recommender systems, creation of systems of reputation attribution, etc.)

To do so, this project used a multi-methodological approach including (a) a (content) analysis of the discursive strategies deployed by digital infrastructures, (b) in-depth interviews with citizens to understand how they conceptualize and attribute trust within and towards digital infrastructures, and (c) a three-wave longitudinal panel to assess how individual experiences in digital platforms influence the dynamics of trust. This longitudinal panel will also use data donation as a way to partner with users to collect digital trace data about their behavior within digital platforms, and the way in which digital platforms shape their interactions with others.

Project #2: Trust towards technology: The conditions and limits, safeguards, legal, technological, economic conditions of trusted and trustworthy technology

Host faculties of the postdoctoral researcher: FdR + FNWI +FEB

Duration: 36 months

Project #2 explores the different safeguards that can contribute to the trustworthiness of digital technologies which are used in society to develop and maintain trust relations (see Project #1). This research looks into the strengths and limitations of different approaches, especially the interaction between regulation, and technological design, with a special attention to business models and market competition. It also looks into how individuals perceive the trustworthiness of such digital technologies and develop and calibrate their trust towards them. The research looks into the efforts of platforms, as well as societal discourses that shape trustworthiness perceptions beyond direct trustworthiness safeguards.

The postdoc uses case study analysis to compare the nature and effectiveness of trustworthiness safeguards around three different socio-technical systems: an e-commerce platform, an AI based recommender system, and a smart contract based decentralized financial application. It will analyze the legal, economic, social, political, and technological factors that contribute (or not) to the trustworthiness of these systems and compares how these factors succeed or fail to address the trustworthiness concerns.

Project #3: The role of media in the economic and psychological factors of institutional (dis)trust

Host faculties of the postdoctoral researcher: FEB + FGW + FMG

Duration: 36 months

Two recent socioeconomic shocks have affected European societies: the Covid pandemic and the current war in Ukraine. These events occurred in rapid succession, were uncontrollable to individual citizens of European countries, and therefore may have affected their sense of security and their optimism about the future, and in worst-case scenarios lead to psychopathology such as anxiety and depression. Trust can counteract the insecurities associated with such socioeconomic shocks, yet we have also witnessed that over the last decade European society has undergone multiple crises of trust in public institutions and in financial, scientific, and medical expertise. Accordingly, we see the articulation of narratives of distrust, which pose a significant challenge to liberal democratic norms.

This Project will rely on a large-scale Europe-wide study with collaborating Universities across all European countries, which assesses current trust levels across all countries within the European continent to assess the distribution of trust around Europe. To identify similarities and differences in the sources of distrust across different European countries, this project will work collaboratively with researchers in the field of “new media and digital culture”, using “digital methods” to investigate the growth and spread of “narratives of distrust” within and across social media “platforms”, in different national contexts. This collaborative research will occur during multi-yearly research schools, known as “data sprints”, organized by the “Digital Methods Initiative”. The initial analyses will allow us to identify those countries, and population demographics within each country, that have been affected most by these recent events. In stage 2 of this project, we aim to identify the specific aspects of distrust and the extent to which specific trust levels were affected. To the end, we will survey (dis)trust within European nations using methods that differentiate between interpersonal trust, measured via economic games and questionnaires, general trust and specific trust towards governmental institutions and news sources, measured via a combination of novel and well-established questionnaires. Finally, we will assess the economic and psychological determinants of trust at an individual level, including current and projected future income, family status, social network support, levels of anxiety, depression, and loneliness, as well as country-level determinants of trust, including perceived integrity of institutions and satisfaction with public institutions.

This research will answer the following questions: What are the factors that contribute to country-wide and interpersonal trust levels, particularly in times immediately following socioeconomic shock. What factors are protecting individuals from the economic and psychological consequences of socioeconomic shock? What factors allow people to maintain trust in others and in local and European institutions? Through the collaboration of FEB, FGW and FMG this research will combine the interpretive nuance associated with digital methods used in humanities, and the methodological and theoretical rigor of content analysis, experimental and survey methods coming from the social sciences and FEB.

Project #4: Courts, governments and legislatures: united in countering the politics of distrust?

Host faculties of the postdoctoral researcher: FdR + FMG + FGW

Duration: 24 months

Narratives of distrust continue to pose a threat to the proper functioning of liberal democracy. Digital technology has opened numerous opportunities of influencing the political process, which has led to questions about the quality of the democratic process. The Brexit referendum was a case at hand. Both on the European and on national levels, governments and legislatures are in the process of developing strategies to strengthen public trust in the democratic process. These strategies include regulatory measures. Moreover, courts – both domestic and supranational – are increasingly enlisted in these processes. This project investigates whether and how states should play a positive role in promoting trust in public debate in a democratic society. Should the three branches of government: executive, legislatures, and the courts, have a role in regulating the truth of information offered in public debate and address disinformation? To what extent do current regulatory efforts impair the freedom of expression? Or do they safeguard the democratic values of the right to free expression by contributing to a level playing field in public debate? And to what extent do political freedoms such as the right to political participation also positively require governments to safeguard a minimum of trust in the proper functioning of parliamentary democracy? And lastly: given the relatively high levels of public trust in the courts in many jurisdictions, courts are increasingly enlisted to promote public trust in democratic procedures. What are the risks and the benefits of judicializing truth?

The project draws on the disciplines of political philosophy, law, and political science. It combines political philosophy and constitutional theory to assess what in a democratic society is the legitimate role of government intervention in promoting trust in public debate. The project employs legal studies to enquire the legal limits and opportunities for regulating public debate and develops qualitative case studies to study different ways of government intervention aimed at promoting trust in public debate in a democratic society. Ultimately, the project should result in clear recommendations for policy makers, judges, and legislators.