Updated: Apr 7
(Part 1) By William E. Newnam
Given the massive proliferation of information access and opportunity, we are confronted with a world challenging us to distinguish the good information from the bad information. Weighted by the volume of information we seek refuge in our communities, in those we trust. According to a recent Pew Survey, a growing number of us receive most of our news through social media and other on-line sources. The same survey also reveals that twenty percent (20%) of adults often get news on social media. Facebook dominates as the most common social media site used for news by Americans: About four-in-ten Americans (43%) get news through Facebook’s platform.
The 2016 election crystallized for many of us these trends and created a frightening picture of a future where truth is lost in a cacophony of mistruths and false information compounded by highly refined disinformation techniques. Disinformation serves to distort, inflame, confuse and divide. In 2016, Donald Trump and his social media collaborators painted a dystopian picture of the present and Trump rode it to an electoral victory; in its aftermath, many see a dystopian future where truth suffers the worst of digital age trends. Permanent, yet highly malleable data can be used to generate false and misleading stories, peddled to the public as genuine and credible, as truth decays in the carnage of disinformation.
Throughout the history of communication technology, human beings have feared the changes brought by changes in the medium of communication. In the 15th Century, monks spent lifetimes cloistered while painstakingly copying sacred texts, and feared the arrival of the printing press. In an ironic twist, they printed pamphlets on printing presses denouncing the machines as ungodly and a threat to the sacred word of God. And, today we often read stories on the internet about how dangerous the internet is to all we hold dear be that family, religion, reason, or freedom, etc. And, like the monks, I type this critique of the digital age using digital technology to be transmitted via digital technology.
In the evolution of communication technology lies important lessons. The technology itself is not a threat. It is an agent of change. Fewer handprinted and calligraphed books were printed after Guttenberg’s first Bible, but the beauty of the page and fidelity to the word of God did not end with the printing press. Indeed, more Bibles were available for more people to read, leading to more people learning to read, leading to Bible translations into many languages, leading to the democratization of Christian theology. Yes, the world changed as a result of the new technology. Availability of printed words whetted human appetite for knowledge, generated curiosity, democratized information, making democracy itself possible on larger scales than at any time in human history.
Yet fear of that information technology continued to lead to controls on content and access well into the 19th and 20th Centuries. American slaveholders, whose liberation from British monarchy was energized by printed words, made it illegal to teach slaves to read. And, book burning would flare up in communities throughout the world including Europe and the United States into the end of the 20thCentury. While the monks might have been afraid of mass-produced books at the time, books and presses created an incentive to read, aroused curiosity, expanded the depth and the breadth of human knowledge to a broader range of public. The printed word did threaten ways of life, how it was delivered magnified the impact.
The world always changes when it discovers newer methods of communication. As it did with the development of the alphabet, so it did with the development of the telephone, and film, and the radio, and the television. And, so it is now with digital communication technology, creating more access to knowledge, more learning opportunities, generating more curiosity, democratizing many societies by democratizing information.
The academic field of Communication Studies posits several principles about human communication among these are that the medium impacts the message and that communication is permanent. At a time when disinformation threatens our very understanding of truth, these two communication principles provide us with insight as we attempt to disaggregate disinformation in the information age.
The medium impacts the message in subtle ways that affect how we construct messages, transmit them, and receive them. A medium that limits you to 140 characters is going to lead to very different messages than a medium that provides you with near limitless content capacity. In the earliest days of email and social media platforms, many of us found ourselves offending or being offended by others, even those closest to us, when no offense was intended. But the subtle elements of face-to-face communication or voice inflection during oral communication was lost. Most of us learned and adjusted our behavior over time. New forms of expression developed from new acronyms (“lol,” “jk”) to new icons [J,L]. The medium itself changed the way we construct, transmit, and understand messages.
The second principle I mention, the idea that human communication is permanent, derives, in part, from the old adage, “once you’ve said it, you can’t take it back.” In interpersonal terms, once you have communicated a message to someone else, a slip of the tongue in a passionate moment or a thoughtless off-hand remark, it can never be retracted. Be it an expression of love or anger, once another hears it, they know you said it. It is out there. It is permanent. We can explain it, we can apologize for it, we can attempt to amplify in the event it was insufficiently expressed. We cannot, however, retract the heard word from the conscious or subconscious of the listener any more than a judge can retract information from the collective mind of a jury admonished to disregard that which they should have never heard. In the digital age, as I stressed to students many times, and many celebrities and politicians (as well as celebrity politicians) have learned through great pain, communication is permanent. In the digital age, communication is more permanent.
Combined, these two principles reveal a great deal about how information comes to be disinformation in the digital age. The medium impacts the message in the digital age because the communication, though permanent, is subject to manipulation in ways never before known to us. Manipulation of text, image, and voice can be done with a few clicks on a keyboard. Data that is permanently saved in the clouded web can be transformed and manipulated to levels of distortion unseen. Renaissance artists painted themselves into enormously important historical events in order to elevate their professional standing. Or, in other paintings they would place their subjects, and usually their benefactors, at religious scenes that occurred more than a thousand years before equating them with revered religious figures. As more of us use social media platforms and other digital communication methods we create more and more permanent communication subject to manipulation by others.
The digital communication era has created opportunities to distort and manipulate information in the public domain and through accessing private accounts. No nation better understands this than Russia. During the Stalinist period, Soviet Russia built an assembly line of disinformation. Generating false stories, planting them into credible communication systems, and then helping them circulate all in the cause of undermining their perceived enemies, foreign and domestic. Following the Arab Spring and domestic uprisings in Russia, the Russian Federation spent the last decade becoming experts at using disinformation tactics in the digital age to sow dissent and chaos at relatively low cost economically, little risk diplomatically, and without domestic political pressure. And, in the process, they are educating the world how to sow chaos through democratic platforms. Anyone with fundamental information technology skills is capable of creating false messages and sharing them through recirculation with, I stress, billions--with a b--billions of people.
Insert the capacity of one person to initiate a false message into a very heterogenous population in the midst of a generational shift, from boomers to millennials, a country soon to be majority-minority nation, with four years of divisive leadership and you have a recipe for disaster. Or so many of us tend to think. We live in an era when political and social pressures intersect with the ability of algorithmic equations created by unknown authors with many different motives to steer audiences to “information” that would “interest” them, regardless of its veracity or reliability. This is the world in which we, as sovereign citizens must learn to distinguish probable truths from probable falsehoods.
It is challenging, but it is not a disaster. Now is not a time to panic, however tempted we may feel. While it is true that more people rely on social media for news and more people use online resources, we should not assume that people are using them badly. Certainly, some are. We know this, but the majority of Americans are also skeptical of news they see on social media. The Pew survey found that, “Even as they regularly turn to social media for news, a majority of those who often get news on social media (57%) say they expect the news they see on these platforms to be largely inaccurate. Concerns about the inaccuracies in news on social media are prevalent even among those who say they prefer to get their news there.”
Hopefully, that skepticism is healthy and there is reason to believe it is. After years of working with college and high school students across many demographic groups whose common thread was their high level of motivation regardless of background, I am impressed with their understanding of social media platforms as something not to be trusted. The students I worked with, and my own children reaffirm this to me, have a great deal of perspective and take the time to follow up and seek to determine the veracity and reliability of any story of serious interest to them. We must keep in mind that we witnessed the digital age coming into existence; people born since 1990 have been born with the internet; those born since 2000 have grown up with smart phones; for those growing up now, these technologies are an extension of their being. They are digital children. They know information technology better than we do. They understand it better than we do. And, they will be able to use it judiciously and with more understanding than we do.
As technology matures this generation is maturing with it. The history of technological change informs us that as new technologies mature, society develops regulations, formal and informal, to minimize the harms they cause. It took seventy years from the time the Model-T made the automobile commonplace for seat belts and air bags to be developed. The Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission developed in response to problems created communication technologies. There is no reason to think that society will not demand and eventually achieve regulations over digital companies if necessary, to solve problems they cause.
Generational change, maturing technology, and policy developments all indicate that perhaps our fear of a dystopian future where we have lost our ability to distinguish truth from fiction. For those of us inclined to see the world of today like the monks once saw Guttenberg’s invention, perhaps we should pause and reflect. Our dystopian fears might prove premature. It takes time for societal institutions to catch up with technological developments, but eventually history says it does. I will share some indications that we have reason to be more optimistic than dystopic in our expectations of the future in part two.