With bad information comes great responsibility – InsideSources
Disinformation is not a new concept, but the newly crowned online media giants of the 21st century have allowed it to spread unchecked. One of the defining issues of the century is the avalanche of bad news that journalists and the public face today.
The father of modern journalism, Walter Lippmann, argued in the 1920s that “there can be no freedom for a community that cannot afford to detect lies.” Perhaps given the endless ocean of information available, the primary role of journalists should now be to detect lies and identify, organize and store data. Given the relationship between bad and good information online, I think that would be futile.
Edward O. Wilson, the American sociobiologist nicknamed “The Darwin of the 21st Century”, gets the crux of the matter when he says that “we have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions and divine technology”.
A major problem is that regulations and journalism as an institution cannot keep up with technology. Ironically, trust in the media has faltered as online tech giants like Facebook and Google have cornered huge chunks of traditional media advertising revenue without taking on the responsibilities of their predecessors. At best, these modern giants are aggregators of existing news; at worst, an algorithm that amplifies our own custom echo chamber and only cares about clicks.
Tragically, most of us are unwilling to look for quality information in our portfolios when we can settle for free news. I myself regularly use online tools to bypass payment walls, even though I supposedly care about reporters and hypocritically wish to get paid as one. In 20 countries, including the United States, France, Germany and the United Kingdom, only 17% of the population has paid for information online in the past year.
As if that weren’t enough, disinformation can be used to manipulate public opinion and drive a wedge between citizens and their government by polarizing the democratic process. Russian interference in the 2016 US election is a prime example.
Moreover, disinformation has magnified the damaging effects when it reaches those in positions of power. During his presidency, Trump claimed that the virus would “miraculously disappear” and that it was “like the flu.” Deaths from the pandemic in the United States could have been halved by May 3, 2020, had administrators listened to expert advice a week or two earlier.
What can journalists do about such reckless disinformation? We will need collective responsibility. You can also start by gaining an international perspective. While the internet has opened the floodgates to disinformation, it has also allowed digital journalism to thrive by finding out what’s going on in the world much faster in a networked and decentralized way. This means that journalists can and should report on laws passed elsewhere that deal with disinformation.
For example, a law passed in France in 2018 requires social media companies such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to disclose who sponsored online content or political ads and at what cost. This requirement for transparency echoes America’s Honest Ads law, which extended its existing broadcast standards to social media. Such actions ensure that the democratic process, increasingly influenced by new technologies, remains open to inquiry and accountability.
The UK government has announced that from 2020 primary and secondary school children will learn to recognize and respond to disinformation online. They learn topics related to delivering stories through confirmation, how to recognize techniques of manipulation and persuasion, and how to make judgments about the accuracy of an online publication.
More recently, in 2021, the Australian government attempted to make news agencies pay Facebook for sharing links to news articles but collecting advertising revenue for itself.
Beyond journalists covering legislation that is slowly catching up with technology, the public are now participating as armchair journalists in movements like the Arab Spring and the MeToo campaign. This democratization of information must be accompanied by a dilution of responsibilities within the public.
Fake news is nothing new. In fact, it is linked to the initial development of journalistic verification methods and codes of ethics. If we are all prepared to adopt these auditing standards, then each of us has access to almost the entire wealth of human knowledge. It doesn’t sound like a bad deal.