Societal challenges regarding digital platforms—from privacy concerns to fake news or hate speech—are often framed around a deficit model of trust: they result in an erosion of user trust, and a need for its restoration is identified. Our contribution challenges this deficit model by examining the function of trust in digital platforms as sociotechnical systems. Platforms provide the infrastructure for a smooth transmission of data between various actors (e.g., users, developers, advertisers). This has inclusive as well as limiting effects: it provides broad accessibility by hiding complexity behind simple interfaces. Despite this detachment from the complex back end, risks and uncertainties are largely transferred to the users, who are expected to make informed decisions when they agree to platforms’ terms and conditions. To be able to utilize platforms in everyday practices, users need to bridge uncertainties through trust. Trust fills the gap of lack of knowledge.

Our contribution sheds light on trust dynamics by combining trust theory with empirical insights. We distinguish trust from distrust and familiarity and specify at whom and at what trust is directed. Distrust of platforms has not led to significant transformations in the market, which remains dominated by the same players. The platforms’ ecosystems heavily rely on trust in and by the users—for example, through the principle of informed consent. We identify an inflation of trust in the realm of digital platforms because trust is inherently risky due to its function of replacing knowledge. In contrast to the deficit model, we emphasize trust’s problem component and frame our suggestions to meet the connected challenges accordingly.

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