How Digital Trust Varies Around the World

The pandemic has forced rapid digitalization all around the world: Schools have transformed to support online learning, many jobs have become entirely remote, and automation has accelerated in a wide array of industries. In addition, many countries have established digital systems for contact tracing, Covid-19 testing, government relief distribution, and vaccination rollouts (albeit with mixed results). This digital growth has demonstrated the tremendous capacity for technology to add value to our society, but it has also revealed how fragile these tools — and people’s trust in those tools — can be.

To build trust in the digital systems that connect us all, it is essential first to understand how people do (or don’t) trust their digital ecosystems today. To that end, in partnership with Mastercard and Tufts University’s Fletcher School, we conducted a large-scale analysis that explored global variation in four key components of digital trust: the security and trustworthiness of an economy’s digital environment; the quality of the digital user experience; the extent to which users trust their digital environment; and the extent to which users actually use the digital tools available to them.

The resulting Digital Trust scorecard (an updated and expanded edition of the framework we published in 2018) is accompanied by an interactive policy simulator, and examines these four metrics of trust across 42 economies. Below, we describe how we measured each of these four dimensions, and then discuss some of the implications of our findings.

Environment, Experience, Attitudes, and Behavior

The first metric we considered was digital environment. This refers to the various mechanisms an economy has in place to ensure safe and secure online ecosystems. These can include both public sector institutions, such as regulations, laws, and oversight bodies that ensure data privacy and security, as well as private sector initiatives, such as many social media companies’ recent attempts to reduce the spread of misinformation, or firms that institute encryption protocols and cybersecurity best practices.

Second, we explored user experience. This refers to the extent to which various sources of friction keep users from getting value out of their digital experiences. We documented two types of friction: First, there is what we refer to as “productive friction” — elements such as passwords, two-factor authentication, security questions, privacy notices, or even those annoying “select all the pictures with traffic lights” quizzes. These experiences may be frustrating, but they support security and privacy. Then there’s “unproductive friction” — obstacles to using digital systems that don’t offer any security benefit. These include shortcomings in digital infrastructure (e.g. spotty 4G coverage), limits in access (e.g. high prices for internet access), and poor design (are e-commerce sites and online transaction tools seamless and reliable?).

Third, we looked at user attitudes, or how people felt about their digital ecosystems. How much do users in a given economy trust their government and business leaders to use their data responsibly and securely? To answer these questions, we examined data from surveys covering privacy concerns, fears about new technology, trust in scientific and governmental institutions, and more. Importantly, user attitudes don’t necessarily correlate to their digital infrastructure’s actual level of security — or to users’ actual behavior. For example, in recent years, there has been growing skepticism about the accuracy of information spread on social media, and yet many users continue to rely on these platforms for news.

Finally, we explored digital user behavior to examine the extent to which people actually engage with their digital environment. If there are frictions in the digital ecosystem, are users willing to tolerate those frictions and use the tools anyway? If levels of trust are low, does that lack of trust actually keep people from engaging with digital systems? To explore these questions, we looked at a variety of data, including consumer trends, social media usage, the proliferation of e-commerce and mobile payments, and media consumption patterns.

Ultimately, the most important indicator of user trust is user action. Assuming similar experiences with similar levels of friction and a similar array of available alternatives, the more users actually complete a given transaction, the more we can infer that they trust in the system enough to engage with it. For example, if two countries offer similar e-commerce environments, but a larger proportion of users in one country actually use those systems than in another, that indicates that the first country exhibits greater levels of behavioral trust.

Of course, these are all holistic metrics that depend on numerous factors. While a fully objective, apples-to-apples comparison would be impossible, we were able to map out these different components of digital trust across the world through an extensive analysis of almost 200 indicators from public and proprietary databases (including anonymized data from our partners Mastercard, Blue Triangle, GlobalWebIndex, and Akamai), ultimately enabling us to score 42 different global economies in each of these four dimensions:

What Does It Take to Build Digital Trust?

Clearly, trust is not a constant as we circumnavigate the world. Our findings offer several insights for any organization looking to build digital trust:

1. Digital trust is not monolithic.

The first main takeaway from this analysis is that a high score in one trust metric by no means guarantees a high score in another: Netherlands ranks 1st in Attitudes and Switzerland ranks 2nd in Environment, while both score low in Behavior; similarly, China is 1st in Behavior, but scored much lower in Environment. Why is this? There are a few effects at play here:

First, as economies develop a more trustworthy digital environment, it’s likely that users’ standards also rise — and this is reflected in less-engaged behavior. For example, Switzerland’s high Environment score and low Behavior score suggest that Swiss users may be accustomed to highly secure digital experiences, making them less tolerant of security issues and thus less open to trying new digital tools than users in less-developed economies.

In addition, attitudes and behaviors don’t always line up. For instance, our data shows that the Dutch are very positive in their attitudes towards their digital systems, and yet their lower tolerance for friction in digital experiences means that their behavior doesn’t reflect that trust. Similarly, in China, despite an environment that is seemingly much less conducive to trust, users remain highly engaged.

And of course, there are always differences that are simply due to specific cultural contexts. For example, our analysis suggests that both American and Brazilian users are fairly skeptical about their digital systems’ trustworthiness, despite the fact that the U.S. in fact has a much more secure digital environment.

 2. A trusted environment is likely highly digitally evolved and stable.

To explore how trust correlated with various metrics of digital growth, we compared the Digital Trust Scorecard with our recently-published Digital Evolution Scorecard, which categorized economies based on their level of digital evolution and current pace of digital growth. We found that a secure digital environment and highly trusting attitudes were associated with digital evolution and stability, as exemplified by countries such as Denmark, Germany, Austria, and Sweden.

On the other hand, economies with high digital momentum tended to have less-secure digital environments, and their users often had greater privacy concerns. This means that as economies ramp up their digital momentum, it is especially important for government and business leaders to take steps to address privacy and security issues that may impact users.

3. Both mature, stable economies and less-developed, rapidly-growing economies engender trust.

Mapping digital trust attitudes onto our Digital Evolution scorecard also revealed another interesting pattern: High-evolution, low-momentum economies and low-evolution, high-momentum economies both tended to have more positive attitudes towards their digital systems than economies that scored similarly on evolution and momentum.

For example, high-evolution, low-momentum economies such as those of many EU countries have been at the forefront of digital inclusion and data privacy regulations, which can engender greater trust in the digital ecosystem. Conversely, low-evolution, high-momentum economies such as those of Vietnam and Indonesia have been enthusiastic in adopting new technologies, leading many users to feel excited and open-minded towards these tools (despite a less-robust digital environment). But countries with low evolution and low momentum, as well as countries with high evolution and high momentum, both exhibited similarly low levels of trust, suggesting it may be helpful for these economies to work on building more positive attitudes towards digital infrastructure.

4. The combination of high digital evolution and high momentum engenders engaged users.

While some less-digitally-evolved but high-momentum economies (e.g., China, Indonesia, India, and Vietnam) exhibited highly-engaged user behavior, in general, economies that combine high levels of digital evolution and digital momentum have the most highly-engaged users (e.g., Singapore, Hong Kong, and South Korea). That’s in large part because these highly-evolved yet still rapidly-growing economies tend to offer seamless, smooth user experiences, while their consumers still tend to have a healthy appetite for trying new technologies — making them more tolerant of frictions and thus more likely to engage in digital experiences.


Importantly, while a lot of focus tends to be directed towards the role of guarantors of trust — that is, the governments and institutions that build and regulate our digital ecosystems — users themselves also have a major role to play in fostering trust in our collective digital ecosystem. When it comes to the digital world, it’s not just companies that create the industry, and it’s not just regulators who determine its security. The vast majority of digital content is user-generated, and much of security and data privacy comes down to how individual users engage with these systems.

There have been many calls recently for increased data and content regulation, but it’s equally essential that policymakers and technologists invest in building awareness of cyber risks and misinformation among users. This can take the form of professional workshops, data literacy courses, or even media education classes geared toward fostering good habits early on.

But most importantly, any economy’s trust-building interventions — at both the institutional and individual level — must be proactive, forward-looking, and fine-tuned to the unique behaviors, attitudes, experiences, and environment of its digital ecosystem. Just a few weeks ago, Davos named 2021 “a crucial year to rebuild trust.” But trust is not static concept: It varies depending on your perspective, priorities, and local context. Understanding the geography of digital trust will be essential to rebuilding it — and to sustaining trust in the rebuilding process itself.

Widely-admired former Secretary of State George Shultz once said, “When trust was not in the room, good things did not happen. Everything else is details.” As we envision a new normal for our global digital ecosystem, we cannot allow distrust to cast its shadow over the tools and technologies that bind us all together. To ensure that trust stays in the room, we must endeavor instead to foster a digital environment that prioritizes — and is worthy of — the trust of its users.

The authors are grateful to Griffin Brewer, Christina Filipovic, and the Digital Planet team at the Fletcher School, and Paul Trueman at Mastercard.


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