New Book by UMass Amherst’s Ethan Zuckerman Examines the ‘Mistrust’ Held Against Societal Institutions

Zuckerman, the founder of the Institute for Digital Public Infrastructure, describes the book as a guidebook for those looking for new ways to participate in civic life
“Mistrust” book cover

From the Tea Party to Occupy Wall Street, cryptocurrency advocates to the #MeToo movement, Americans and citizens of democracies worldwide are losing confidence in what we once called “the system.” This loss of faith has spread beyond government to infect a broad swath of institutions, including the press, corporations and digital platforms, none of which seem capable of holding us together. The dominant theme of contemporary civic life is now mistrust in institutions, according to internet pioneer and University of Massachusetts Amherst faculty member Ethan Zuckerman, and he says this attitude has left many asking: How should we encourage participation in public life when neither elections nor protests feel like paths to change?

Drawing upon the work of political scientists, legal theorists and activists in the streets, Zuckerman offers a lens for understanding civic engagement that focuses on efficacy and the power of seeing the change you make in the world in his new book, “Mistrust: Why Losing Faith in Institutions Provides the Tools to Transform Them” (W. W. Norton & Company; Jan. 19).

In “Mistrust,” Zuckerman, an associate professor of public policy, communication and information at UMass Amherst, introduces a set of “levers”—law, markets, code and norms—that all provide ways to move the world. The book helps readers understand what relationships they want to have with existing institutions – Do they want to hold them responsible and make them better, or overthrow them and replace them with something entirely new? While some contemporary leaders weaponize mistrust to gain power, Zuckerman writes that activists can use their mistrust to fuel something else.

While many people today are passionate about making positive change in the world, they may feel like the "right" ways to make change are disempowering and useless. Zuckerman argues that while it may be reasonable to dispense with politics as usual, we must not give up on changing the world. Often, he explains, the best way to make that change is not to pass laws—it’s to change minds.

Zuckerman, founder of the Institute for Digital Public Infrastructureat UMass Amherst and former director of the Center for Civic Media at the MIT Media Lab, ultimately describes “Mistrust”as a guidebook for those looking for new ways to participate in civic life, as well as an explanation of how we’ve arrived at a moment where old ways of engagement are failing us.

“If you want to understand the root causes that are driving citizens around the world to give up on institutions and elect leaders like Donald Trump – and what we can do about them – “Mistrust”provides a comprehensive and compelling answer from one of our great scholars of social change” says Eli Pariser, former executive director of and co-founder of Upworthy, a mission-driven media company designed to make civically important ideas popular.

More information on the book and a link to copies can be found on the website of the book’s publisher, W.W. Norton & Company.

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