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Keeping True in the Disinformation Age: (Part 3) By William E. Newnam

Updated: Apr 7, 2023


We are being told that the political conventions opened the election season. Many of us feel like we suffered through an on-going election season for the last four years, non-stop political promotion became the expectation of the media and the public. A common political thread during the discussion of our politics remained the idea that a long history of politics deception, manipulation, and prevarication crossed a threshold into a chaotic period of disinformation and misinformation that threatens democracy.

We understood the deception, manipulations, and falsehoods of previous periods. We developed personal and social defenses to moderate, if not inure us, to the machinations of politicians and their operatives. From the earliest days of the United States experiment in democracy, some of the free press functioned, somewhat clandestinely, as allies of political benefactors and opponents of political enemies. The United States’ second president, John Adams, and the third, Thomas Jefferson, both used press connections to plant stories contributing to the breach in their friendship, eventually reconciled many years later. Press practices and public awareness and education as well as public responses and reactions helped to moderate the impact of these excesses. Though they continued to pose challenges to the body politic, as a political society, the country developed defenses to the early skirmishes of information warfare.

As technologies evolved from the telegraph to radio, to broadcast television to cable and satellite television, vested interests with a history of weaponizing information, exploited the communication delivery system very quickly. History again demonstrates how we the people responded. We developed regulatory systems, personal behavior, and educational systems which to some degree, served to minimize some of our greatest fears of manipulation, prevarication, and distortion. I see several reasons girding my faith in human beings to adapt to the digital communication age as it did to previous developments in communication evolution.

1. We Will Become Better at Processing and Filtering Information

Collectively, societies will become better at discerning the good from the bad. Digital information technology is relatively new to all of us. But the divide between those of us who watched it come to dominate our lives, and those younger than say this author, who grew up with it dominating their lives is vastly different. Many of those who grew up with the internet are now becoming teachers, professors, professionals across the spectrum. As they become the leaders and educators of future generations, the digital age generation will be teaching future generations of the dangers and the benefits of the technology that will dominate human generations for the foreseeable future. These young professionals are more prepared and have more credibility when they teach younger students because they understand the technology.

This new generation will teach future ones not only how the technology works, how to use it, and how to improve it, they will also teach them lessons learned. Coming generations will hear that there are good websites and bad websites. They will learn that they have less control over their private lives, that every text and every image is likely preserved somewhere. They will, I anticipate, be more discreet consumers of internet information than many in the pioneering phase of the digital age. They will learn that they need to be critical thinkers of what they see on their screens, not passive, mindless consumers of information. And, they will learn that the internet has been a vehicle for positive social change when harnessed well. Courses that teach these skills already exist at the collegiate level and will continue to grow and expand as those coming into teaching will bring their lived and professional experience with them. There is no reason to think that future generations will not be better at “reading” the internet than past generations became better at critically reading text than those that came before them.

2. More Speech Remains the Antidote to Bad Speech

This old adage which, I must confess to have doubted recently, remains true. Trying to restrict or control access to information and knowledge is a fool’s errand doomed to create more problems while solving nothing in the long term. I have to admit, I occasionally feel wistful at the thought of having philosopher-kings run social media companies, to delete fake stories, bots, and inflammatory speech. But, I have come to believe that what was true of 19th and 20th century technology is also true in the 21st century. Only more speech can correct bad speech.

False ideas spread more easily if left unchallenged and they are more likely to be unchallenged if they remain in underground social networks. I thought, that perhaps because we find ourselves in echo chambers reinforcing already held beliefs, and that chamber is insulated by algorithms designed to steer you to information which supports what you already believe, perhaps we need to restrict extremist ideas from public websites. But, as I look at the survey data, recall my own experiences with this rising generation, I realize that is the lazy way out.

Rich debate must take place and inflammatory falsehoods challenged. The internet facilitated, if did not made possible, the protests over George Floyd’s killing. Social media continues to promote social justice protests in the wake of that event. Social media made it possible for the world to see how George Floyd was treated. Social media also made it possible for protest organizers to work through on a rapid scale, the planning, the logistics, and communications for the protests. In the 1950s, it would have been much harder for the SCLC, SNCC, CORE, and the NAACP and their affiliates to organize a single rally let alone hundreds of rallies across the country simultaneously.

Digital technology also made it possible to capture on film, confederates, right wing affiliates who incited violence and committed property destruction in an effort to discredit the movement or incite a broader social conflict. Since I first drafted this, the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kinosha followed by the web’s disclosure of behavior of police and on the night Kyle Rittenhouse killed two people and wounded another, illustrated again the ability of citizens with digital cameras provides us with more information making it more difficult for people to hide. In short, social media made it possible to prove that enemies of the movement were engaging in a disinformation campaign, accusing the protesters of violence, while inciting violence themselves. In this case, discriminating, social media savvy, young people prevented disinformation and counterespionage against their nonviolent protests.

While we often think about the 2016 campaign as a threshold point ushering in disinformation campaigns, perhaps it was a wake-up call. So far this campaign season reporters, many young, many in online forums have identified manipulated data very early:

  • Within days of release of an online ad, journalists discovered graphically manipulated anti-Semitic ads (David Perdue R-Ga., whose campaign ran the ads, reminded everyone he is a strong supporter of Israel and then blamed the ads on an outside vendor).

  • The same day the Trump campaign released an ad of Joe Biden with outrageous manipulations such as turning a photo of him in prayer as visual proof he was unable to make important policy decisions, they were called out by media outlets for their distortions.

  • Within a few days of Kanye West announcing his campaign, reporters discovered that he was being represented by and funded by at least six Republican operatives, some with direct ties to the Trump campaign, who were working to get West on the ballot as an independent candidate in multiple states, revealing the whole campaign for what it is, a disinformation campaign designed to suppress black voter support for the Democratic ticket.

  • Congressman Steve Scalise was forced to remove an ad because he added words to an ad quoting a man suffering from ALS in a conversation with Joe Biden. The man with ALS had to speak through a computer assisted device and the Scalise campaign added words to, in their words, “provide context” for the words the man actually spoke through his device.

In each of these cases, at least metaphorically, more speech solved bad speech. We as a public, and especially the more tech savvy among us, are developing social and other on-line networks that identify and push back against misinformation campaigns. From George Floyd to identifying deep fakes, the same generation we sometimes worry about, also respond with savvy use of technology themselves identifying the lived reality of human experience and distinguishing that from the alternate realities created by producers of “reality TV.” I believe the younger generation are on to it and, given time they are getting better at identifying and responding to misuse and abuse of digital technology.

3. Social Media Companies Will Become More Socially Responsible

Social media companies have operated with a great deal of freedom. Originally portraying themselves as a virtual public square instead of media publishers, they were able to navigate waters that avoided accountability for posted content. As their power has grown, the population has grown more suspicious of these companies as well. The 2016 election and the Brexit vote that preceded it drew a great deal of attention to the way the “virtual public square” became a threatening public nuisance.

The contours of the relationship between social media companies and the world of finance, commerce, politics, and the general society is still in flux. The United States government as well as governments around the world consider various forms of regulation. The pressure on them to become socially responsible actors only grows over time.

During this political campaign, they have already begun to backtrack from their attempt to appear neutral in responding to false statements, inflammatory, and hateful messaging. From Twitter’s more aggressive approach to Facebook’s desire to appear the most neutral, major social media platforms are responding to public and government pressure to police their public square. As in past periods of technological development, regulations on “the” telephone company, on radio broadcast, and on “the three” television networks took time to negotiate and establish as those new communication technologies took root. It is very reasonable to expect similar developments as the regulations catch up with the maturing industry.

4. Twenty-first Century Education Will Change

I am not sure how 21st century education will change but change it will. The last 40 years has seen us spend a lot of money to “reform” education hoping to improve student achievement, measured and defined as grades and test scores. Unfortunately, that money was poorly spent because it was money designed to “reform” an existing system rather than “revolutionize” or “recreate” education.

Twenty-first century information systems require 21st century information skills to understand them, to operate them, to design them, and to hold the use of those systems accountable as a public society. We have a responsibility now to think through what an education in this society looks like. And, it cannot and should not, be measured as previous “reforms” were, by how much it improved economic opportunity and fueled economic development.

Instead, educators need to focus on methods that will encourage critical evaluation and problem solving in a digital age. As younger generations fill up the ranks of higher education and primary school systems, they will bring with them a new understanding of the enormous education benefits available in the digital age, but also the enormous problems posed by the digital medium.

My guarded optimism of what the future holds is informed, in no part, by an optimistic view of future generations. Young voter participation is greater than it has ever been. Youth across the country are motivated to participate actively in social change and they do have the voting power if they choose to harness and use it. They understand the strengths and many of the pitfalls, of digital communication. They have grown up watching others make mistakes, use it maliciously, and spread false information with it. They have the same reason as the rest of us to seek the truth and downplay the falsehoods.

As far back as we may allow, human beings have pursued truth despite the obstacles in our way whether by nature, by our own limitations and perceptual abilities, or by other human beings attempting to deny access to, or the reality of, truths. Thousands of years of the human condition, truth seeking, will not be undone by the power of disinformation and misinformation. Upcoming generations understand better than older ones such as mine, the benefits and pitfalls of digital communications. They are likely to make choices I would not make. They are likely to sacrifice privacy for convenience and efficiency of information flow. It is the technology of their future not mine. But, when it comes to truth, the generation that has handle global warming, future pandemics, international instability, and technological change, future generations will seek, and likely find, truth.

The tools that encourage disinformation and misinformation by corrupt and malicious actors prove to the be the very tools needed to distinguish probable truths from probable falsehoods. I trust those born into the digital age will wrestle with the challenges and balance them appropriately for the world in which they will live.

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