Trust and Technology. From Social Relations to the State of Democracy

Event: International Conference

Location: NEC conference hall & Zoom

10 June 2024, 14.00-17.30 (Bucharest time)
11 June 2024, 10.00-17.30 (Bucharest time)

Convener: Răzvan NICOLESCU

Participants: Constantin ARDELEANU, Dmitry ASINOVSKIY, Stephanie BAKER, Roxana BRATU, Magda CRĂCIUN, Alex DINCOVICI, Cristian DUCU, Andreea EȘANU, Paolo S.H. FAVERO, Katherine FURMAN, Malte FUHRMANN, Guilherme Orlandini HEURICH, Ferdinand de JONG, Silvia MARTON, Adrian MATUS, Manuel MIREANU, Răzvan NICOLESCU, Nicoleta ROMAN, Dan Alexandru SĂVOAIA, Mircea TOBOȘARU, Claudiu TUFIȘ, Lucian VASILE, Shriram VENKATRAMAN, Mahika WASON


Join Zoom Meeting

Meeting ID: 825 9444 9581
Passcode: 558353

It has been argued that the proliferation of digital technologies brought unprecedented changes to many aspects of life, from an increase in personal wellbeing to unprecedented threats to democratic life. In just several years it has become common knowledge that organizations target and influence voters via social media, algorithms increase inequalities and cultural bias, and disinformation thrives in the online media. The recent AI breakthroughs combined with pervasive mining of personal data pose supplementary challenges to a series of normative aspects that range from legal liability to personal freedom. Democratic institutions, organisations, and individuals find it increasingly difficult to understand, explain, arbitrate, and regulate the massive technological developments and their consequences to the social and cultural life.

We propose to look at these relatively recent developments through the lens of trust. Trust is fundamental in everyday relations and across societies. Sharing widely accepted notions of trust is essential for the general welfare of communities and for respecting the social contract. However, new digital technologies have changed the ways in which people trust institutions, governments, and each other. For example, social media can extend social trust but can decrease trust due to misinformation, disinformation, and misrepresentation. E-commerce has brought trust in platforms but has eroded work relations and labour solidarity. Smartphones and smart wearables brought efficiency and comfort but contributed to the general sense of distrust in big data companies that track and collect personal data. Research shows that people have developed social mechanisms to navigate the paradoxes of the media/technological environment, to gain supplementary awareness of others, and to arbitrate if institutions, ideas, and politicians are trustworthy. Such processes are not new. Throughout history, people and institutions always found ways to appropriate, socialize, and trust new technologies, from the printing press to electricity, and biotech industries.

This 2-day conference explores the ways in which new technologies challenge and transform notions of trust in relation to various social aspects, from individual wellbeing to democratic life. We invite papers from anthropology, sociology, history, political science, visual arts, computer science, education, journalism, and policy making to reflect on these ongoing transformations. We need a multi-disciplinary effort to make sense of the changing nature of trust, the prospects to uphold the existing social contract, and the emerging threats to democracy at large.


Monday, 10 June 2024

Welcome remarks
Valentina Sandu-Dediu, Rector, New Europe College, Bucharest
Andreas Zivy, Ameropa
Răzvan Nicolescu, New Europe College, Bucharest

Keynote talk: In the Presence of an Image
Prof. Paolo Favero, University of Antwerp

Panel 1 – Perspectives from Anthropology
Chair: Magda Crăciun, University of Bucharest

Stephanie Alice Baker, City University of London
Sowing Distrust Memetically: How Memes Are Used to Encourage Vaccine Hesitancy

Shriram Venkatraman, University of Southern Denmark, Odense
Sharmistha Swasti Guptaand, Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology, Delhi
Mahika Wason, Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology, Delhi
Who Is to Be Blamed? Intergenerational Perceptions of Misinformation

Răzvan Nicolescu, New Europe College, Bucharest
“I Learned to Distrust Them and Decide with My Own Mind” Searching for Meaning among Conspiracy Theories in Bucharest

Coffee break

Alex Dincovici, National University of Political Studies and Public Administration, Bucharest
I Might Trust My Senses, But Must Check My Sensors. A Tale of Body Awareness and Fitness Trackers

Guilherme Orlandini Heurich, University College London
Trust and/in Open-Source Software

Ferdinand de Jong, New Europe College, Bucharest
The Smile of Ahmadou Bamba: Epistemic Doubt and Distrust of the Colonial Archive


Tuesday, 11 June 2024

Panel 2 – Perspectives from Philosophy, Criminology and Political Science
Chair: Silvia Marton, University of Bucharest

Katherine Furman, University of Liverpool
Trust, Rumours, and Social Media

Andreea Eșanu, University of Bucharest, New Europe College, Bucharest
Algorithms and Epistemic Trust?

Mircea Toboșaru, “Politehnica” University of Bucharest
Existential Trust, AI Agents, and Existential Communities

Cristian Ducu, European Ethics & Compliance Association, New Europe College, Bucharest
The Rise of Synthetic Images. Experiencing Trust Issues

Coffee Break

Roxana Bratu, King’s College London
Reconsidering Trust-based Governance in the Context of AI Usage in the Public Sector

Manuel Mireanu, New Europe College, Bucharest
Trusting Security: Gated Communities and Technologies of Urban Safety in Cluj, Romania

Claudiu Tufiș, University of Bucharest
Can Suspicious Minds Mend Walls?

Lunch break

Panel 3 – Perspectives from History
Chair: Dan Alexandru Săvoaia, “Alexandru Ioan Cuza” University of Iași

Constantin Ardeleanu, New Europe College and The Institute for Southeast European Studies, Bucharest
The Abusive Power: Risk Perception, Mis/trust and the Genesis of Russophobia in 19th Century Romania

Nicoleta Roman, “Nicolae Iorga” Institute of History, Bucharest
From Russia with Love. A State Model of Cultural Expansion and Development in Nineteenth Century Romanian Education for Girls

Malte Fuhrmann, New Europe College, Bucharest
Fear and Loathing on the Anatolian Railways. Insinuations, Xenophobia, and Corruption in the Ottoman Strike of 1908

Coffee break

Lucian Vasile, Institute for the Investigation of Communist Crimes and the Memory of the Romanian Exile, New Europe College, Bucharest
In and Out: Hopes and Realities of the Other Side of the Iron Curtain. Case-study: Romanians in the First Years of the Cold War

Adrian Matus, ELTE Budapest, New Europe College, Bucharest
Mapping Global Communism(s): Communist Area Analysis Department’s Knowledge Production

Dmitry Asinovskiy, Central European University and New Europe College, Bucharest
Whose Puppet is “the Priest”? Conspiratorial Reactions to the Iranian Revolution among Soviet and American Leaders, Bureaucrats, and Academic Experts

Concluding Remarks



Keynote: In the presence of an image
Prof Paolo Favero, University of Antwerp

Technological developments in the field of image-viewing and image-production have, since the invention of photography, always called upon updated reflections on images’ capacity to produce truthful and trustworthy accounts of reality. From showing more than what the eye could see (this is the case of the telescope, the microscope and the x/ray) to creating visions of things that never stood in front of the camera (the case of digital imaging at large and AI especially) images have simultaneously been trusted as depositories of (hidden) truths, and looked upon with suspicion as embodiments of superficiality, hedonism and deceit. So, how are we to understand images? Can they speak the truth at all? Are they really there to represent, document and mirror reality or are they possibly also about something else? Building on my simultaneous interest for engaging with images as both object of study as well as tools for producing knowledge I want, with this talk, to offer some pointers for rethinking conventional assumptions on what images are, mean and do away from binary reductions. Journeying in time and place and across theoretical apparatuses (hence looking at different culturally situated discourses and practices regarding visual culture) I will explore the existence and politics of images as more than messages and mirrors but as proper companions of (and guides for) human life. We live our lives in the presence of images.


Panel 1 – Perspectives from Anthropology

Dr Stephanie Alice Baker, City, University of London
Sowing distrust memetically: how memes are used to encourage vaccine hesitancy.

Disinformation research is increasingly concerned with the role of new media technologies in the strategic production of false and misleading content online. This paper examines how influencers use memes to spread vaccine hesitancy for social, economic and political gain. Drawing on a 12-month digital ethnography of three influential disinformation producers on Instagram and Telegram during the pandemic, it explores their strategy of meme warfare by tracing how these influencers employ a variety of digital technologies to sow doubt about the safety and effectiveness of vaccines and the industries that produce them, while profiting from institutional distrust. Highlighting the sophisticated strategies of meme production and dissemination, this paper demonstrates how false and misleading health information falls below the radar.


Dr Shriram Venkatraman, University of Southern Denmark
Sharmistha Swasti Gupta, IIIT-Delhi; and Mahika Wason, IIIT-Delhi
Who is to be blamed? Intergenerational Perceptions of Misinformation

Popular and academic discussions on fake news and misinformation focus on their impacts on various demographic groups. Although these groups acknowledge the spread of misinformation, they often hesitate to recognize their roles as stakeholders due to social shaming, leading to ‘Othering’ to mitigate blame. This study, anchored in India, examines how trust shapes news consumption and misinformation spread among middle-class millennials and seniors through sixty-eight in-depth interviews. It seeks to understand how each demographic perceives the other as nodes in the spread of misinformation. Millennials rely on social validation, while seniors trust traditional sources, each viewing the other’s primary validation mechanism as problematic. Despite divergences in trust dynamics, both groups share trust in specific social media platforms for news sharing and verification, influenced by platform functionalities and personal social networks. The study underscores the pivotal role of trust in shaping intergenerational perceptions and suggests collaborative pathways to address misinformation in Indian society.


Dr Razvan Nicolescu, New Europe College
“I learned to distrust them and decide with my own mind” Searching for meaning among conspiracy theories in Bucharest

The paper reports the initial results of a long-term ethnographic research on conspiracy theories in Bucharest. Most research participants tend to use conspiracy theories to make sense of the contradictions and inconsistencies they face. For many, complex conspiracies have the quality to reveal the “truth” about the state of the world, which is either hidden or strictly restricted in terms of access and governance. “Truth” then needs to be preserved and protected. One popular way to do this is to reduce one’s own trust relations to those that hold to and defend the perceived truth. This process results in trust relations being increasingly distant and disconnected from personal relations, which questions the idea that (1) trust can be shared on a larger scale and (2) trust relies on mainstream knowledge.


Dr Alexandru Dincovici, NSPSPA, University of Bucharest
I might trust my senses, but must check my sensors. A tale of body awareness and fitness trackers

The widespread use of fitness trackers often ends up reconfiguring the ways in which users interpret their own sensory information. Using the concept of cognitive assemblages, I aim to show how integrating an activity tracker sometimes fuses first and third person forms of body awareness, as the devices establish a kind of loop in between the two, in which it is the non-human cognizant (comprising the sensors’ sensing capacity and the algorithmic capacity for measurement as well as the normative displays) that often takes the main role in informing subsequent action. This can be explained by a certain degree of trust being invested in the assemblage’s accuracy and scientific objectivity, wherein sensors end up dethroning senses.


Dr Guilherme Orlandini Heurich, University College London and the BBC
Trust and/in open source software

Open source’s culture of collaboration was, and still is, one of the central pillars of any software used today. We carry a lot of open source software in our own pockets. Crucially, open source developers argue that collaborative creation of software is the best way of ensuring that software can be trusted – given that anyone can access, read, and (potentially) any part of an open code base. That trust has historically been under attack by tech giants and their acquisitions of open source companies. As more and more open source companies get absorbed by such corporations, what could be the consequences for the ways in which programmers (and us) can trust the software that we use every day?


Dr Ferdinand de Jong, New Europe College
The Smile of Ahmadou Bamba: Epistemic Doubt and Distrust of the Colonial Archive

For a century, the image of the Sufi Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba, founder of a Muslim order in colonial West Africa, was based on a mug shot taken by a French ethnographer. The photograph informed the rich visual culture around the Cheikh and turned into an icon invested with “baraka”. However, in 2020 a series of photographs that allegedly represented Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba was offered for sale on a French Internet site. The photographs proliferated on the Internet and produced a moral panic among the disciples of the Muslim order. This paper examines this case as one in which colonial photographs produced intense epistemic doubt and distrust in the postcolonial public sphere. The paper addresses the question how trust was restored.

Panel 2 – Perspectives from Philosophy, Criminology and Political Science

Dr Katherine Furman, University of Liverpool, Department of Philosophy
Trust, Rumours, and Social Media

Rumours are unofficial pieces of information that we distribute through our peer networks. However, rumours are troubling because they can disrupt more official lines of communication, like public health information or government statements. This is because we often trust testimony from those in our immediate social circles more than we trust far-removed strangers who seem to have little in common with us. This is not as pathological as it first appears. For instance, the repeated ways that we interact with our peers creates a selection pressure to share good information – we don’t want our friends to think we unreliable or liars! But social media disrupts our normal information sharing practices. We often don’t know who we are talking to and bots actively distribute falsehoods. This talk will look at the trouble create when there are overlaps between rumours that are distributed orally and those that we encounter via social media.


Dr Andreea Eșanu, University of Bucharest, New Europe College
Algorithms and epistemic trust?

Algorithms and epistemic trust intersect. Algorithms are increasingly used in various aspects of our lives, from recommending products online to determining loan approvals. However, as algorithms become more pervasive, questions about their reliability and trustworthiness arise. Epistemic trust refers to the confidence or reliance placed on sources of knowledge. In the context of algorithms, epistemic trust involves the belief that the algorithms we interact with are accurate, fair, and transparent. In the following, I aim to address the problem of epistemic trust in algorithms by exploring a solution suggested for the first time by the English philosopher John Locke in two of his fundamental works, Two Treatises on Government and Essay on Human Understanding: what kind of (human) institutions can back up epistemic trust (in algorithms)?


Dr Mircea Toboșaru, Politehnica University of Bucharest
Existential Trust, AI Agents, and Existential Communities

After curatorial and generative AI, AI Agents are emerging, unbodied and robotic. It is highly probable that some AI agents will be personalized, autonomous and modular. Trusting them too much will involve a big risk, but distrusting will involve missing great opportunities. After explaining existential trust and the role it plays in what I take to be a highly desirable sort of community, I will explore the possibility and desirability of integrating AI agents in such community.


Dr Cristian Ducu, New Europe College
The Rise of Synthetic Images. Experiencing Trust Issues

Since mid-2010, when deepfakes made the headlines for the first time and many influential voices flooded the media with their concerns about the impact of such digital images, many public and private organizations reacted and attempted to develop various regulatory strategies and filtering tools meant to protect people from this pervasive phenomenon. Our main thesis is that, though we have major concerns (disinformation, manipulation, etc.), these are not new and should not lead us to treat all synthetic images as “an unprecedented threat to democracy”. Secondly, given the existing digital literacy initiatives, citizens across the globe will be able to identify when a synthetic image is used for a malicious purpose and protect themselves from this kind of intent.


Dr Roxana Bratu, King’s College London
Reconsidering trust-based governance in the context of AI usage in the public sector

This paper focuses on the uses of artificial intelligence (AI) in public policy in the context of trust-based governance. It is an exploratory endeavour that looks at the ways in which new technologies challenge the notion of social trust in relationship to democratic life, based on two case studies: the “Robodebt Scheme” and the “Suspicion Machine”. In both cases faulty algorithms have incorrectly assessed the credibility of recipients and marked them as defrauding the government. The paper explores the political implications of AI uses in public policy as a decision-making mechanism in the context of democratic institutions. It concludes with a reflection on the ethical dimensions of transparency and accountability as key elements of trust-based governance in the context of AI usage by the public sector.


Dr Claudiu Tufiș, University of Bucharest, Faculty of Political Science
Can suspicious minds mend walls?

Most theories on trust, social capital, political culture, agree that societies require trust in order to properly function. They need interpersonal (social) trust and they also need institutional (political) trust. As any observer of the Romanian society will undoubtedly argue, this poses a significant problem since Romania is characterized by rather low levels of both types of trust. At the same time, some aspects of the Romanian society have developed rapidly over the last three decades, significantly reducing the gap to other European countries. In this paper, using survey data, I will attempt to identify, starting from Sztompka’s idea of functional substitutes of trust, what are the elements that took over the functions of trust, allowing Romania to develop.

Panel 3 – Perspectives from History

Dr Constantin Ardeleanu, New Europe College
The abusive power: risk perception, mis/trust and the genesis of Russophobia in 19th century Romania

This paper analyses several episodes that marked the genesis of nineteenth century Russophobia among Romanian elites. In the 1830s, the formation of a national party in Wallachia was the result of a complete distrust of imperial Russia’s annexationist plans in the principalities. Western-educated elites had Russophobic prejudices similar to those of Western European public opinion, clearly visible in various polemical pamphlets and especially during the 1848-1849 revolution. During the Crimean War, elites supported the anti-Russian military actions, also regarded as a sort of national liberation. Complete distrust was visible during Russian-Romanian military cooperation in 1877, while the outburst of public Russophobia followed in 1878, with the annexation of South Bessarabia. My talk will contextualise several such episodes that shaped Romanian elites’ views of neighbouring imperial Russia as an abusive and corrupting power, a risk for their country’s sovereignty and for the peace of the larger region.


Dr Nicoleta Roman, New Europe College
From Russia with Love. A State Model of Cultural Expansion and Development in Nineteenth Century Romanian Education for Girls

Being the first is always flattering: first woman to achieve public recognition in a certain profession, first traveller around the world, first railway, first school and the examples can continue. This is a new beginning no matter the field of discussion and implies merit, pride and a benevolent intent behind the action. With Russia rising as more than a regional power, we challenge this perspective with reference to the emergence of Romanian state education for girls. In the complex context of the nineteenth century Southeastern Europe and in the long history of Russian-Romanian geopolitical entanglements, we argue for a model of cultural imperial expansion applied in the principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia.


Dr Malte Fuhrmann, New Europe College
Fear and Loathing on the Anatolian Railways. Insinuations, Xenophobia, and Corruption in the Ottoman Strike of 1908

The 1908 strike on the Anatolian Railway owned by the Deutsche Bank has traditionally been studied through a macro-economic perspective and government documents. Only more recently have attempts been made to highlight the agents involved. This paper aims to take up this trend and focus on the tropes employed by labor activists, company and bank officials as well as politicians in the confrontation. It will demonstrate how those involved employed both vague and explicit insinuations of immoral conduct, physical abuse, incompetence, malice and appealed to nationalist, xenophobic, and imperialist public sentiment. It will also attempt to reconstruct how the various agents believed corruption played into the conflict and how from a historiographic perspective, corruption actually led to the unforeseen outcome that the nationalist Young Turk government chose to support a multinational railway conglomerate against the patriotic labor activists.


Dr Lucian Vasile, New Europe College
In and Out: Hopes and realities of the Other Side of the Iron Curtain. Case-study: Romanians in the first years of the Cold War

Created in the first years of the Cold War, the Iron Curtain divided Europe: in the east – communist regimes, under the influence and control of Moscow; in the west – mostly democratic countries with free economies and where human rights were respected. My presentation will analyze, on one hand, how this line represented an obstacle that had to be crossed by those from the east for whom opposition to communism or integration into the new societies was not an option, and, also, the reasons behind these clandestine and dangerous border crossings. But, at the same time, I will also examine how the same Iron Curtain was a mirage and a screen through which the realities behind it were reflected, creating expectations and hopes that decisively influenced the lives of those who chose to cross it, both from the east to the west , as well as vice versa.


Dr Adrian Matus, New Europe College
Mapping Global Communism(s): Communist Area Analysis Department’s knowledge production

My research focuses and uses as a starting point a unique collection, named Records of Kevin Devlin and the Communist Area Analysis Department on Non-Ruling Communist Parties’ held by the OSA Archivum Budapest. This collection broadens the understanding about the knowledge production within RFE Research Unit. Traditionally, historians focused on Radio Free Europe’s broadcasts in the context of the Cold War and the specific impact in Romania, Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Bulgaria. In contrast with the existing studies, my goal takes a different approach. I aim to understand the corporate culture within Radio Free Europe and how this multiethnic context determined the decision-making process. By this, we can adequately understand Radio Free Europe’s workflow in a globalized context and, implicitly, the birth of Kevin Devlin’s collection.


Dr Dmitry Asinovskiy, New Europe College
Whose puppet is “the Priest”? Conspiratorial reactions to the Iranian revolution among Soviet and American leaders, bureaucrats, and academic experts

The 1978-79 revolution in Iran was unexpected. Neither the superpowers, nor regional players foresaw the fall of the Iranian monarchy and even less so – the establishment of the Islamic Republic led by the Islamic jurists. Naturally, witnessing the scale of events in the course of the revolution, leaders, bureaucrats, experts in the capitals of both superpowers were trying to make sense of what was happening in Iran. However, as the sources reveal, most of them were busy seeking for the foreign involvement in the Iranian affairs, denying the agency of the Iranian people. In this paper I will discuss how the conspiratorial Cold War thinking drove most of the analysts in the United States and the Soviet Union towards irrational false conclusions about the hand of their adversaries behind the events in Iran. I will also briefly address this phenomenon as an important element of the Cold War international relations, of which the Iranian revolution serves only as an evident case study.

This workshop is organized with financial support from the AMEROPA fellowship program, and in collaboration with Spiru Haret, N+N, DigiHum and GCE St. Gallen fellowship programs at New Europe College.