Online trust and identity

The issues of online trust and identity are both intertwined and also express a variety of political, legislative, commercial, technical and social implications – especially considering the ever increasing range of activities and interactions which using the internet provides.

Personal internet literacy has also been identified as a key variable. Ofcom’s 2010 Media Literacy Audit [1] sought to research opinions and behaviour around online trust and assess whether people’s attitudes and their actions were linked. It identified 3 activities on which trust was based: confidence in carrying out online transactions; understanding the veracity of information sources and, lastly, attitudes to providing personal information. Overall, the report suggested that personal confidence was a more important factor in determining a person’s perception of trust online than their general concerns about security and privacy.

With more than two thirds of the top 100 global web sites using some form of digital identity system [2] and the increasing options for customised services which social media and user-generated content networks provide, (see ease of publishing online and online communities) we believe having a secure and credible digital identity is an essential part of being able to act to the fullest possible extent online.

As such, while the threat of losing control of one's online identity is well-known - with online identity theft and hijacked websites being well-publicised examples - we nonetheless expect this challenge to remain significant going forward. Additionally, we anticipate that personal recommendations and peer-to-peer advocacy will become vital in establishing longer-term trust in online relationships (see interactive websites); forming what some have described as an emergent ‘recommendation economy’.

Lastly, in practical terms both individuals and organisations may face distinct challenges in forming and maintaining their online presence. An individual may keep separate personal and professional identities, while for an organisation, the challenge may lie in drawing disparate activities and teams together into a single coherent identity.

What are the implications?

Maintaining an online identity

  • Who do you know?: Awareness and recognition of your organisation could extend far beyond your known membership lists and include a large number of 'anonymous' online users.  Can you devise ways to identify and then engage this part of your audience?
  • Data accuracy: the internet is awash with information but can you or your users trust it? As the volume of both 'official' as well as user-generated content grows, it's important to understand the implications that inaccurate, misleading or obsolete information could have on your organisation's credibility. You may also want to consider how ‘new’ forms of data use may effect your organisation (see Open Data)
  • What tools can help manage your identity? New forms of online identity management include: 'Leased' identities, where a profile formed on a particular social network is re-used (such as Facebook Connect); using independent services (such as; and, developing more 'portable', verified and personally-owned identities (such as via the Open ID service).
  • New behaviours: as other online trends like social media become increasingly common new behaviours are likely to emerge which may confuse or challenge your expectations of trustworthiness (e.g., long-term, committed members posting unfavourable reviews of your services in public). Have you though about how you might deal with this?

Online trust

  • Attribution and believability: From opinion through to apparent statements of fact ... Can you identify the author? What level of credence should you give to them? How influential do you believe them to be? Are others likely to perceive their comments as trustworthy?
  • Who am I?: In the real world we generally have one identity. Online, that doesn't have to hold true and people create multiple forms of identity, supported by different information and with a variety of intents (fantasy, self-expression, protection, anonymity, malice, criminality, hope). A 'false' or incomplete identity may not necessarily be untrustworthy.

Moving forward

Your online identity

  • Is your organisation presenting a credible, transparent and appropriate 'persona' online?
  • When participating online do your staff convey clear and consistent identities? Do they understand how to act in ways that foster trust and also recognise the need to treat the identities of others with appropriate care and sensitivity?
  • Has your organisation an understanding of which online services and information its users or stakeholders believe to be credible? You need to know where to monitor for emergent issues that may effect your organisation or its beneficiaries.
  • Does your organisation have a clear online content strategy designed to build credibility and trust? Target both where - and how - you should be visible in engaging with the specific issues, themes, events or services which your organisation represents.

Online trust

  • Have you identified what activities or actions your organisation undertakes which could make you vulnerable to trust issues (e.g. asking for personally identifiable information)?
  • Are you also neglecting anything which could make you vulnerable (e.g., not ensuring your websites or databases are up-to-date and secure)
  • Do you have contingency plans in place to deal with trust issues if they arise? If your organisation is large enough, are you able to coordinate the actions of PR, customer service, marketing, operations and in some cases, legal? If not, who's going to act and when?
  • Have you thought about the way a 'trust issue' could effect your organisation. You may want to consider: PR, reputation management, crisis management, customer, media or stakeholder relations, membership, sponsorship, revenue generation (commerce) and fund raising.
  • Do you reliably assess the trustworthiness of other sites and organisations? Is this consistent across your organisation?
  • Are there financial risks associated with your organisation's online activity?

This driver was written for NCVO Third Sector Foresight by Guy Yeomans.

Want to know more?

What makes social media trustworthy?

Published by:, a company specialising in “research and trend analysis on digital marketing and media”

Date: 2010

Format: Web

What is it?: An article looking at what sources of online information are most likely to be trusted by users of social media.

How useful is this?: The article is based on research by Invoke Online. Although the details of this study are not available, the article does raise important issues concerning online trust so may be of use as a starting point for exploring this topic.

Options for managing many online identities

Published by: Gigaom, self-described as “the leading provider of online media, events and research for global technology innovators”.

Date: 2009

Format: Web

What is it? This online article reviews a range of tools for online identity management.

How useful is this? This is useful as an introduction to online identity management, primarily for individuals seeking to develop a coherent online presence.

Transparency triumphs

Published by: Trendwatching

Date: 2009

Format: Web

What is it? Titled 'Transparency Triumphs' this is a comprehensive review of the 'Reviewing' trend and its effects on both online and offline perceptions of transparency and trust.

How useful is this? Although focusing on the impact on advertising, the key behaviours identified should be understood and assessed on a wider basis. Given the prominence of social media and the move to a more 'people-centred' idea of trust, this article offers some key insights into how user-generated content and word-of-mouth activity may effect organisations in the future.


  1. Online trust and privacy: People's attitudes and behaviour - Ofcom, 2010 [back]
  2. Online Identity and Consumer Trust: Assessing Online Risk - Brookings, 2011 [back]
Last updated at 11:34 Thu 03/Mar/11.

Recent comments


With more and more people connecting virtually, we can't afford to ignore the networking opportunities offered by on line resources such as twitter, facebook and linked in, to mention but a few. We should have a vision of how we communicate virtually and plan strategically to decide how we create that presence and utilise our opportunities.

How do we do this? We can look at examples like NCVO's use of twitter and NAVCA's new you tube postings. We can try it ourselves and get help and advice from the ICT hub We can start by using foresight more effectively and we can take one small step; create an onine profile for yourself today and see where it takes you!

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