A scientist’s opinion : Interview with Prof. José van Dijck about PEriTiA

Interview with José van Dijck, leading PEriTiA’s analysis on media impact on trust

Prof José van DijckProf José van Dijck, MR, is a distinguished university professor at the University of Utrecht and a prolific author on the topic of digital media and its impact. Her work covers a wide range of topics in media theory, media technologies, social media, and digital culture. Since 2010 Van Dijck has been a member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, and from 2015 to 2018, she was President as well. In 2016, the Dutch magazine Opzij named Van Dijck the most influential Dutch woman of 2016.

The PEriTiA project aims to explore the conditions under which people trust the expertise that shapes public policy. Why is PEriTiA necessary?

PEriTiA is a very timely project: in the midst of the coronacrisis and during its aftermath, we have experienced how important trust in institutions is. Trust relates to the government and its policy-making institutions, but also to science and media. Policy-makers heavily rely on experts for informed decision-making, and even in the event of the outbreak of an unkown virus, where nobody has the answers, scientists rely on proven methods and transparent processes, which are the conditions at the base of institutional trust. PEriTiA examines these conditions.

What is the impact of digital media in shaping trust?

Digital media, particularly social media platforms, play an increasing role in the mediation of trust between government, policy-makers, experts-scientists, legacy (mainstream) media, and the public. As digital media have become a major force in public communication, we need to better understand how they can be steered towards the common good and strengthen common knowledge. Their unprecendented global impact warrants through research into their role as underminers of trust.

You have been studying the impact of digital media in our lives and our decision making for quite some time, what can we expect of PEriTiA’s results?

I hope this project brings together insights from various disciplines to help us understand how trust-building processes work and how they can be steered toward more social cohesion and a better democracy. I know this is a highly ambitious goal, but we need these kinds of interdisciplinary connections to examine the basic processes of societal trust. Studying the impact of digital media is just a tiny part of that larger ambition, but I believe it’s an important contribution to understanding the fabric of human communication and its technological mediateness.

Lastly, in your expert opinion, is there a way to limit the impact of digital media, especially when it comes to informing trust?

So far, digital (social) media platforms have escaped accountability mechanisms by arguing they are ‘neutral’ technological intermediairies and therefore, bear no societal responsibility. But so long as they become weapons of distrust, they need to be held accountable for the distribution of misinformation, hate speech, and undermining forces, whether trolls or agitators. We need to introduce systematic checks and balances to regulate digital media in the context of institional trust.

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