At the dawn of the Information Age, idealists probably assumed that increased access to digital data would boost knowledge in beneficial ways for society. Safe bet? Nope. Instead, the Information Highway is an endless traffic jam of falsehoods trying to block truth.
Visualize it like a zombie movie, a highway littered with crashed cars and mindless human bodies propelled by a virus and hell bent on destruction of others.
How did this happen? In a nutshell, when the internet became commercialized in the 1990s, traditional news organizations didn’t want to be left behind, so they offered their news for free. Non-traditional sources of news popped up online as well, some good, some not so much. Eventually, there was a flattening in which many consumers of information could not distinguish between falsity and truth.
For example, the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign season was chock full of fake news, i.e., the tale of an FBI agent investigating Hillary’s emails who killed himself after murdering his wife and being the source of leaks about the investigation. Perhaps you too saw this “Denver Guardian” news story being posted on Facebook. This absurdity led to a great headline by the very real Denver Post: “There is no such thing as the Denver Guardian, despite that Facebook post you saw.”
The fake news machines are still whirling out complete bullsh*t and fact checkers are having trouble keeping up. In Mexico and the United States, Facebook is attempting to ferret out the truth. The Washington Post (a very real news organization) reported that the social media giant is apparently struggling with this task: “The hardest part is where to draw the line between a legitimate political campaign and domestic information operations,” said Guy Rosen, a top security executive at Facebook.
Is it really that hard? How long would it take to disprove that the wife of then candidate and now President Obrador of Mexico is not really the grandchild of a Nazi.
Apparently, Twitter too thinks truth is really hard. “We have not figured this out, but I do think it would be dangerous for a company like ours … to be arbiters of truth,” Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said in an interview on CNN this Sunday. Hmmm, so when Alex Jones says that the Sandy Hook school shooting never happened or some such, is it really that hard to figure out if the speaker/tweeter is lying?
Then again, Rudy Giuliani, formerly America’s Mayor and federal prosecutor who now represents President Trump tells us that “truth isn’t truth.” In an attempt to clarify, Giuliani later tweeted: “My statement was not meant as a pontification on moral theology but one referring to the situation where two people make precisely contradictory statements.”
Yeah, no. Truth is about incontrovertible facts and evidence. If I tell you 4+5=9, and someone else asserts that the correct answer is 11, that person is either a liar or a dummy who cannot grasp arithmetic.
Unfortunately, the internet, TV and radio are full of malarkey these days and it’s coming from different directions. In addition to the Russian government’s actions in social media content aimed at sowing discord in the U.S. (see indictments) and its hacking of the Democratic National Committee (see these other indictments), now Facebook and Twitter have disclosed they are shutting down an Iranian disinformation campaign.
Still, both companies are grappling with a hydra-headed monster that is harming their appeal with investors. The companies have not only a financial motivation, but a fiduciary duty to enhance security and the value of the content they allow to be published.
But what about users? Where lies our responsibility as social media consumers? Yes, we advise each other about spreading dubious news or chide each other. We can have robust, civil debates about the truth we seek. We can share real news too, even if it’s bad news. And, if the news gets really bad, we need to stick together. The truth is out there and it needs to matter again.