Research questions

What kind of communication creates and preserves trust in an increasingly digitized world? What role does trust play in dealing with digitization? Select questions address research topics from the Research Training Group “Trust and Communication in a Digitized World”. Former PhD students answer these questions and provide insights into their research.

  • Media

    What role does knowledge about and trust in online audiences play in the decision to disclose personal information on social media?
    Despite frequently expressed concerns about their privacy, users of social media disclose personal information to a large (partial) public. Previous academic discourse has explained this privacy paradox in the following way: users weigh up the potential costs and hoped-for benefits of self-disclosure and make a rational decision on this basis. My PhD project examined cognitive mechanisms that can systematically distort this weighing-up of costs and benefits. Firstly, the project’s empirical studies showed that users hardly know who has access to their disclosed information. Moreover, they could not reliably assess on a metacognitive level how accurate their own knowledge of this potential audience was. Secondly, the project experimentally investigated the importance of implicit assumptions about audience members’ behaviour. The results suggest that users trust that members of the public would only really read their information in isolated cases despite being able to access it. Based on their own experiences in social media, they seem to assume that the audience suffers from information overload and therefore has to be economical with their own attention. Implicit assumptions of this kind can further distort the evaluation of costs and benefits because the subjectively perceived likelihood of access by audience members does not necessarily correspond to the number and type of actual readers. Lack of knowledge about as well as implicit trust in the potential audience call into question the extent to which users can competently regulate their own privacy in social media.
    Dr. Ricarda Moll, title of the PhD thesis: “Metacognitive mechanisms of privacy regulation on Social Networking Sites”

    In conversation with AI – what influences user satisfaction and trust with voice assistants?
    Voice assistants and virtual dialogue systems have increasingly been finding their way into our lives in recent years. They are available “on demand” in the form of smart speakers, on mobile phones and laptops and in cars. Well-known products are Amazon’s Alexa/Echo, Apple’s Siri and Google Assistant. Artificial intelligence techniques have increasingly improved the recognition and production of spoken natural language. During use, some design features stand out: the devices usually have rather female voices by default and show a certain kind of humour. We are often not aware of other conversation patterns that voice assistants, but also we ourselves, can show. One of these is the phenomenon of linguistic adaptation. For example, we are more likely to adopt terms from a person (or a machine) if we feel close to them, whether emotionally or thematically (lexical alignment). If a voice assistant adapts to the user at the word level, this can increase the user’s acceptance and intention to use it. The voice assistant will also appear more trustworthy to listeners. Conversely, there may be another reason for humans to adapt to the voice assistants’s words if the system speaks in a less human-like and more restricted fashion, we adjust our words in order to be understood correctly. However, this should not mean a reversal in the design of voice assistants: more eloquent systems are perceived as more amiable.
    Dr. Gesa Linnemann, title of the PhD thesis: “Alignment and Spoken Dialogue Systems – Influences on Trustworthiness and User Satisfaction”

    How trustworthy are social media for journalists as sources for their coverage?
    Digitization has had a lasting effect on accelerating the dynamic of the news: recipients expect quick information on the Internet, and many journalists want to be the first to provide it. When, in the case of natural events or terrorist attacks, things come thick and fast, social media such as Twitter are an important source for journalistic coverage. These “distant sources” become particularly important when journalists cannot yet be on the ground themselves. When dealing with distant sources, however, they perceive an increased risk that the information could be false or manipulated. This makes journalists increase their verification efforts, name the source or pass on their uncertainty to the recipients. Under time pressure, even unverified material can find its way into the coverage. Journalism risks a loss of trust here. A content analysis of 761 media articles on eight crisis-related events from 2011 to 2015 found that a quarter of journalistic TV reports and 14 per cent of printed reports cited social media as a source. These sources are most often cited on the day of the event. It was revealed that advanced verification strategies such as forensic methods for image analysis or “crowd verification”, i.e. evaluation by a social media community, were not yet widespread in journalism. Instead, even distant sources were checked using classic journalistic tools such as cross-research or contacting experts or the source itself. Quoting from tweets and postings has since become increasingly established as a journalistic source strategy. As a result, journalism should – in training and self-reflection – pay even more attention to the effects this has on recipients and how this can be countered. Transparency about journalistic work processes is only one way of dealing with this. Much more fundamental is the question of journalism’s self-perception in digitized information environments. Due to the acceleration of information dissemination and alternative information supply, the journalistic norm of “be first, but first be right” is under more pressure than ever.
    Dr. Florian Wintterlin, title of the PhD thesis: “Quelle: Internet. Journalistisches Vertrauen in distanzierte Quellen”

  • Business

    Why is trust important in digital teams and how can it be inspired?
    In digital teams, trust is important because it positively influences the effectiveness of these teams. The more team members trust each other, the more likely they are to share information with their colleagues, ask for help and feedback on problems, and the more likely they are to resolve conflicts constructively. In teams with a high trust level, team members are more committed, they refrain from checking up on their colleagues and are also more likely to spend their free time together. In total, these behaviours lead to higher team effectiveness in terms of team satisfaction and higher work performance. In order to build trust in digital teams, team members should ensure that all members behave competently, benevolently, with integrity and transparently. In digital teams in particular, it is important to use communication channels (e.g. suitable groupware solutions) that enable the perception of the team’s trustworthiness in terms of competence, goodwill, integrity and transparency.
    Dr. Christina Breuer, title of the PhD thesis: “Maximierung von Vertrauen in virtuellen Teams durch innovative Groupware-Lösungen”

    What role does trust play in strategic organisational communication?
    The trust of their stakeholders is of enormous importance to organisations: it is the basis on which organisations in a modern, differentiated, volatile society can achieve their goals in the long term. If stakeholders perceive risks in the relationship with organisations, e.g. in case the quality of products is difficult to assess or it is uncertain that services will be fulfilled, then trust is a mechanism to deal with this perceived risk. The function of trust is to tolerate risks in relationships. Trust in organisations is largely based on their perceived trustworthiness. The studies conducted, using the example of political parties and non-governmental organisations, show a clear connection between the trustworthiness of the organisations and the willingness to vote for the party or to use its goods and services, respectively. Because of the importance of trust, organisations should consider trust when planning, implementing and evaluating their communication activities. The studies conducted show that trust is primarily created by the way in which objects of trust present themselves. Therefore, the strategic communication of organisations, e.g. in the form of campaigns, plays a central role in building trust in their stakeholders. Strategic organisational communication can be an important link in building relationships of trust between organisations and their stakeholders. Taking into account the antecedents of perceived trustworthiness presented in the studies, organisations should emphasise their capacity, goodwill and integrity accordingly.
    Dr. Christian Wiencierz, title of the PhD thesis: “Vertrauen in Parteien durch Gespräche über Wahlwerbung. Der Einfluss interpersonaler Kommunikation über Wahlwerbung auf das Vertrauen in politischen Parteien”

    What is the importance of trust in negotiations and can negotiations conducted digitally also be successful?
    Trusting and negotiating are closely linked. It is well researched by now that, in negotiations, mutual trust leads to better outcomes for both sides. Those who trust are more transparent about their wishes and goals and share this information. On the one hand, this is risky, because one negotiating side learns what is important to the other and can exploit this with strategic counter demands. In principle, however, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages if both sides seek good joint negotiation results. Previous research concluded that negotiations by email are less trustful and the negotiation results are less advantageous for both sides. In the meantime, a lot has changed: the technical possibilities of transmitting images have improved and people are generally more experienced with digital transmissions. In addition, the corona pandemic has strongly boosted the topic of digital negotiations. In a laboratory study, we had subjects negotiate with each other either in person or via video conference and investigated how and why trust and negotiation outcomes are influenced in the respective settings. The result showed that face-to-face negotiations and video negotiations actually differed only slightly in terms of trust of the negotiators and the negotiation results. Only the perception of personal connection was slightly reduced in digital negotiations. This suggests that it seems to be quite possible nowadays to conduct negotiations successfully via digital channels if media such as videoconferencing are used. There would also be advantages in the future if more negotiations were to take place online: less travel and flight emissions, less time and money spent through saved travel and less individual stress.
    Dominik Sondern, working title of the PhD thesis: “Vertrauensentwicklung in dyadischen Verhandlungen”

  • Science

    Why is trust relevant in online health forums, and what criteria do people seeking advice use to assess what information they can believe and whom they can trust?
    The Internet has become a platform for seeking information and sharing experiences in many ways. Users can also become the source of information themselves in this context. However, most online forums lack so-called gate-keeping mechanisms: the information is not checked for accuracy. Lay people seeking advice often find it difficult to judge the accuracy of the information presented. Consequently, they have to rely on clues in the communication to assess the credibility of the information and the trustworthiness of the authors. This assessment is particularly relevant due to the sensitivity of the information and the high personal importance for those affected by health-related issues. In various experimental studies, we have investigated, among other things, how features of the language, attributes of the writer and opinions of other users affect trust building. The results showed that people seeking advice rated medical statements from self-identified doctors as more credible than statements from other professional groups. In contrast, the use of medical jargon in the contributions was more of a hindrance to building trust. Not only did advice seekers prefer understandable everyday language, it also increased their ability to judge the accuracy of the information. Further studies showed that the rating of other users, as is mainly known from product reviews in online shops (e.g. “4 out of 5 stars”), can influence the credibility of medical statements.
    However, the fact that such bandwagon effects can be misleading when assessing the accuracy of information was hardly reflected by the participants in the study.
    Dr. Franziska M. Bhakta, formerly Thon, title of the PhD thesis: “Establishing Trust in Online Health Communication: The Role of Privacy, Expertise, and Social Validation in Online Forums”

    Who do people trust when they look for online health information, and what role does the language of the experts who provide this information on the web play?
    The internet is popular as a research channel for health information. Here, people can get information about medical issues or general health-related topics without much effort, anonymously and independent of doctors’ appointments. This often goes hand in hand with significant decisions for people’s health. For people without medical training, however, it is difficult to judge on their own whether the information they read is actually correct, complete and appropriate. They have to decide who and what information they can rely on. In several experimental studies, we investigated to what extent the linguistic style with which the experts offer their information on the net plays a role in this. We asked ourselves whether it is more trustworthy if they use language that is also typical for the online platform in question. Our findings provide insights into the role of appropriate language use for forum posts and videos about food myths: the use of medical technical language is more trustworthy in forums for medical professionals than in forums for laypersons, for example, whereas it is the non medical technical language that appears more trustworthy precisely in layperson forums of this kind. On other platforms such as YouTube and Moodle, where information is also presented in videos and not only in written form, it also matters whether the language is appropriate for the respective platform and context. On YouTube, for example, it was considered more appropriate for the expert to use personalised language and, thus, language that is typical of YouTube. When searching for health information online, we should therefore also be aware of the linguistic peculiarities of certain media and platforms when deciding who and what information we can trust on the Internet.
    Dr. Maria Zimmermann, title of the PhD thesis: “Trust in Health Information Online – On the Role of Language Style and Context of Communication Online”

  • Sports

    How does the public deal with athletes suspected of doping? Is trust gambled away or can it be rescued through communication?
    Doping is a key trust risk in the sports sector. The suspicion alone sometimes leads to emotional reactions – on the part of the athlete, but also on the part of the audience. Social media such as Twitter, Instagram or Facebook enable and suggest a direct connection between the two. Looking in particular at the areas of trust and reputation, the question arises as to whether public doping allegations cause lasting harm to athletes or whether they can use communication strategies to positively influence their external image. In the course of my PhD project, I found that the audience is comparatively lenient with justification or complete ignorance by the athlete. Apologies or admissions tend to weaken reputation and trust, while it makes no difference whether the corresponding statement is received via a journalistic source or via a social medium. Furthermore, it does not matter whether the suspected doping occurred in a sport that is particularly prone to doping. Rather, athletes can generate support by publishing their defence statement in a social medium, as an analysis of Facebook reactions to the doping allegations against the Spanish cyclist Alberto Contador showed. With reference to the initial question, one can ask whether the public is at all willing to look behind the curtain of competitive sports and dethrone athletes suspected of doping – particularly if it comes to those of their own nation.
    Dr. Katharina Pöppel, title of the PhD thesis: “Believe it or not: The effect of athlete’s crisis communication on trustworthiness and reputation in case of doping allegations”

    What role does trust play in the use of fitness wristbands and apps?
    Knowing how many steps one has taken during the day or how many hours one has slept at night can promote a healthier lifestyle. Fitness wristbands and matching apps provide increasingly accurate results for “digital self-measurement”. Using trust models, I explored attitudes and impacts associated with the use of fitness wristband. For this purpose, I conducted an extensive study in which 150 participants used a fitness wristband for six weeks and filled in a questionnaire every day via their smartphone. An online survey of users and non-users of fitness wristbands and apps was also part of my research. The results: trust in technology in general or in specific technical functions was higher among users of fitness wristband than among non-users. While general trust in technology facilitates the start of use, perceived functionality prolongs the duration of use. Trust, use and physical activity are thus related. This is an important finding for sports psychology and interesting for many other research questions, because many health problems in the population, such as obesity, diabetes or postural defects, can be attributed to physical inactivity. Another result: the fitness wristbands and apps had no influence on the users’ confidence in their own bodies in the context of the study, i.e. the users felt neither more secure nor more insecure with regard to their body confidence as a result of the data collected. Trust in the security of their body-related data also did not seem to play a major role among the user group and, as with many data-related applications, takes a back seat to any perceived benefits.
    Dr. Lena Busch, title of the PhD thesis: “Gesundheitsorientiertes Verhalten durch Selbstvermessung? Die Rolle von Vertrauen für die nachhaltige Nutzung von Fitness-Apps, 2019”