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Hastings Center Report

The Sociotechnical Construction of Distrust during the Covid-19 Pandemic

Abstract: What were the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on trust in public health information, and what can be done to rebuild trust in public health authorities? This essay synthesizes insights from science and technology studies, information studies, and bioethics to explore sociotechnical factors that may have contributed to the breakdown of trust in public health information during the Covid-19 pandemic. The field of science and technology studies lays out the dynamic nature of facts, helping to explain rapid shifts in public health messaging during Covid-19 and reasons they produced a lack of trust in public health authorities. The information field looks at how facts are sociotechnically constructed through systems of classification, illustrating how extrascientific factors influence public health authorities. Putting these perspectives alongside bioethics principles raises additional factors to consider. The goal of this essay is to learn from past failures to point toward a brighter future where trust in public health authorities can be rebuilt, not on faith, but rather through striving for calibrated trust within which, through a virtuous circle, trust is validated.

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