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What is trustworthy, anyway?

7 ways companies can prioritize trust in the design of private messaging platforms

Graphic created by Dalberg Design

By Emma Leiken, Responsible Technology at Omidyar Network

At Omidyar Network, we envision a world where private messaging platforms are not just trusted, but trustworthy.

We know that trust is complex. And like so many social phenomena, sometimes we can best identify what it is by considering what it isn’t. As consumers, we decide what tools we’re going to use, what companies we are going to give our money to, and with whom we share our information. We make these decisions based on convenience, information, resources, and values — but also based on trust. Trust is like a bank of sorts. Its currency is grounded in a handful of subjective factors and if not carefully considered, may get quickly depleted. Trust banks exist on a macro-level in relation to our perceptions of institutions, companies, and individual leaders, but also on a more micro-level in the way we experience digital platforms, including messaging.

For example, trust in Facebook (now Meta) eroded significantly when data from 87 million Facebook profiles were non-consensually harvested and sold to political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, which allegedly then used the data to try and influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the Brexit vote. What followed was deemed the “great privacy awakening,” demonstrating both how people’s data can be woefully misused, and how little they know about what happens to it.

In 2021, we witness another breach of trust when Meta-owned WhatsApp updated its terms of use and privacy policy, primarily focused on the platform’s business offerings. As part of this policy refresh, WhatsApp removed a clause about people’s ability to opt-out of sharing certain data with Facebook. People who didn’t accept the new terms in a short period of time would lose functionality on the app. For many, WhatsApp became less trustworthy because the proposed changes undermined their expectations of privacy on the platform. Some lost confidence when they had difficulty making sense of the privacy policy in plain terms. Others felt deceived when they learned that in fact, WhatsApp has shared user metadata with Facebook since 2016.

Today, many private messaging platforms’ design choices and business decisions make them objectively unsafe and unworthy of our trust. In the existing paradigm, tech companies are incentivized to target and acquire massive user bases, engineer for convenience and minimal friction, and maximize engagement and virality. Some go as far as harvesting reams of data about users that can then be monetized. This emphasis on scale, convenience, and speed enables harassment and the spread of mis and disinformation, all of which affect the trustworthiness of the company, platform, group, or discrete message.

Omidyar Network recently collaborated with Dalberg Design to dig deeper into what builds and erodes trustworthiness on private messaging platforms. “Unbreakable: Designing for Trustworthiness in Private Messaging demonstrates that trustworthiness on private messaging platforms hinges not just on privacy, but also on user perceptions and realities of control, transparency and accessibility, and remedies for grievances.

Through a participatory human-centered design process involving interviews, focus groups, and prototype testing with users of private messaging platforms across the United States, Colombia, and Nigeria, the Dalberg Design team found that trustworthiness has a few key ingredients. First, privacy is the floor — not the ceiling. The study uncovered additional ways that people experience trustworthiness on these platforms, as well as ways the companies could make design changes to address their concerns:

User control

  • The ability for people to adjust safety and security settings with granularity and for different kinds of relationships (e.g. the ability to hide phone numbers in large groups, restrict sending of direct messages, restrict access to profile photos)
  • The ability for people to protect themselves when communicating with others who use less secure platforms (e.g. receiving a notification from the platform when they receive a message from an unverified clone platform that may compromise user security such as GB WhatsApp)
  • The ability for people to have maximum security as the default setting

Transparency and accessibility

  • The ability for people to see key information about the platform at moments where it matters most (e.g. group invitation requests that include total group members, date of formation, etc)
  • The ability for people to find clear, accurate, and accessible information about platform operations, policies, and terms of service in places that are most intuitive

Remedies for grievances

  • The ability for people to get responsive communication from the platforms when they have questions, concerns, and grievances
  • The ability for people to seek redress from the platforms for their grievances through clear and straightforward pathways

Private messaging platforms like WhatsApp, Signal, Telegram, and Messenger are seminal technologies. By assuring private communication on a global scale, these innovations expand and protect democracy as well as our human rights. They have fundamentally reshaped human connection. But tools with this depth of political, economic, social, and cultural influence must be held to the highest standards of trustworthiness and safety.

In particular, on platforms like Whatsapp and Signal where messages are encrypted, “content moderation” is neither a feasible nor rights-respecting option. On these platforms, we believe that the most effective solutions to risks and harms lie in confronting the suboptimal design choices of the platforms themselves. It’s time we design for trustworthiness.

To learn more about this research, browse the case studies, and explore the design prototypes, visit



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Omidyar Network

Omidyar Network is a social change venture that reimagines critical systems, and the ideas that govern them, to build more inclusive and equitable societies.