Help fight information pollution
About 200 years ago, the arrival of moveable type made it a lot cheaper to print and distribute pamphlets and papers. The resulting boom in publishing included some material of dubious factualness. According to Sam Wineburg in a January 9, 2018, article on the Hill, Thomas Jefferson was one of the many people dismayed at the outpouring of "untrustworthy pamphlets and broadsides of dubious quality."
Rather than attempting to stem the rising tide of public information, Jefferson believed it was best to respond to the "dark side" of the expansion of public expression by investing in education:
“If we think [the people] not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education.”
Today we find ourselves struggling to respond to a tsunami of information, much of which is flat-out wrong. Information is polluted if it is intended not to inform but to deceive. In addition to being unfactual, it is presented with a hidden bias and intended to benefit the provider at the expense of the recipient. It not only takes a position, it advocates for that position, and nearly always capitalizes on that position.
A study by the Stanford History Education Group (pdf) tested the ability of students in middle school, high school, and college to distinguish trustworthy information from its polluted counterpart. Wineburg, who led the research team, claims "the report card is filled with Ds and Fs." He sums up the ability of young people to "reason about online content" in one word: "Bleak." Similar studies in other countries have come to the same conclusion.
Wineburg points out that when the dangers of air and water pollution first came to the public's attention in the 1960s and 1970s, schools responded by developing classes and curricula that made students more aware of the serious risks to the environment. He argues that a more fundamental change in education is needed now to combat the dangers of information pollution. Simply promoting "media literacy" and "digital citizenship" won't defend against the use of information as a weapon.
Raising the defenses against info-bombs
There's nothing new about using information as a weapon. Unfortunately, the enemies of democracy have gained an edge in the use of disinformation to promote their agendas. Haroon Ullah, a senior fellow at Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, writes in a January 6, 2018, opinion piece on the Globe and Mail, that the new battlefield is social media and the dark web. Here is where Russia and the Islamic State have mastered the art of weaponized information.
The bot armies of Russia and its allies are "winning because social-media firms profit from all traffic – whatever the source – and governments are simply too slow to counter this threat." The researchers identified three important aspects of disinformation campaigns:
1. People believe something when it is repeated.
2. Whoever makes the first impression has an advantage.
3. Subsequent rebuttals simply reinforce the original misinformation.
In other words, it is futile--even counterproductive--to attempt to dissipate the lies by correcting them. For some reason, that sounds very familiar.
Ullah claims the most effective method for counteracting the info-bombs is to "direct a 'stream' of pro-active, accurate messaging at the targeted audience." Another countermeasure is to stop relying on social media as a news source because it is easier for information warriors to hide on social networks while gaining legitimacy simply by being on a popular platform.
How to find trustworthy information providers
This week the Mozilla Foundation, through its Mozilla Information Trust Initiative, announced the Open Research Collective on Information Pollution. In a January 25, 2018, post on Medium, Mozilla researcher Sarah Oh describes the initiative as "a community repository of recently published articles from thoughtful researchers across disciplines." Among the topics to be addressed are conditions for building trust online, the impact of information pollution on users, and how to penetrate the echo chambers that most internet denizens inhabit.
In a November 30, 2017, article on TechWorld, Thomas Macaulay reports on a study of "information disorder" by the Council of Europe that identified three separate components: misinformation (false information shared without the intent to mislead); disinformation (falsehoods "spread with malicious intent"); and malinformation (genuine information disseminated with the intent to do harm).
Macaulay points out that calls for regulation to combat weaponized information underestimate the complexity of the problem. Governments are never able to keep pace with the rate of technological change. Self-regulation by the major internet platforms is unlikely to work because people don't trust social media companies.
Fight for your right to protect your privacy
Future Crunch co-founder Angus Hervey believes the "next big privacy battle" will be fought over the right to use tools and services that prevent us from being tracked, whether by advertisers, the government, or other third parties. In a January 28, 2018, post on Quartz, Hervey points out that "for minorities fighting persecution at home and abroad, activists on the frontlines of environmental and social battles, and for democracy campaigners in authoritarian regimes, the right to privacy isn’t a choice: It’s life and death."
If you're ready to "take control of your digital hygiene," as Hervey puts it, he offers descriptions of and links to various privacy-promoting tools. Among them are AdBlock Plus for preventing ad networks from tracking you; the Signal private messaging system; and the Facebook ad preferences page, where you can delete the private information Facebook has shared with its advertisers (Facebook keeps the information for its own use, of course).
Two of my favorite privacy-protecting freebies are offered by the Electronic Frontier Foundation: Privacy Badger for blocking internet trackers, and HTTPS Everywhere for ensuring you're using an encrypted connection to sites whenever one is available.
Complexity economics proposes a revival of the middle class. The restaurant owners of Seattle were sure that raising the city's minimum wage to $15 an hour would destroy them. Instead, business is so good they can't open new restaurants fast enough. Funny thing, they didn't realize putting more money in people's pockets would lead to those people spending some of that money in restaurants.
One hundred or so years ago, Henry Ford famously raised the pay of the workers in his factory to an unheard-of $5 a day. This was sufficient for them to afford to buy one of the Model Ts they were manufacturing.
It seems like every 100 years, like clockwork, people realize that a healthy economy is driven from the middle. That's the conclusion of the backers of what is called complexity economics. As Forbes contributor Robb Mandelbaum writes in a January 23, 2018, article, complexity economics "rejects the notion that there is a bias towards equilibrium in an economy, or immutable rules of behavior."
An outspoken advocate for complexity economics is Nick Hanauer, who was the first investor in Amazon (he served on the Amazon board until 2000) and the co-founder of a marketing company that Microsoft purchased in 2007 for $6.3 billion. When Hanauer turned his attention to the IRS tax tables, he discovered that since 1980, the richest people in the U.S. have nearly tripled their share of the national income, while the lowest 50 percent of people in the country have seen their share shrink by about one-third.
The $15 minimum wage is at the heart of complexity economics, as is the belief that "participants" in the economy are constantly tweaking the rules based on people's behavior so that the top few continually collect and retain wealth. According to Hanauer, "Trickle down economics is a lie, and people who subscribe to it are either lying or confused."
Journalists are under fire in the Philippines. The press is under attack by governments and extremists around the globe. Few press organizations are facing the kind of pressure being applied against Rappler, a news site in the Philippines, by the country's President, Rodrigo Duterte, and the rest of his government. On January 19, 2018, a group of 59 bloggers calling themselves "Bloggers for Freedom" expressed their support for Rappler and for "the right to free expression." Rappler's Bea Cupin reports on the situation in a January 19, 2018, post.
Earlier this month the Philippines government revoked Rappler's license in response to the site posting articles critical of the Duterte administration. Shelley Hepworth writes in a January 16, 2018, post on the Columbia Journalism Review that the license revocation was "fast-tracked" after Duterte criticized Rappler in his July 2017 State of the Union address. Rappler is the third-largest online news site in the country, according to Hepworth, and it has been attacked repeatedly since 2016, when its articles critical of the Duterte administration's illegal war on alleged drug dealers first appeared.
Rappler CEO Maria Ressa has been targeted personally by the Duterte "propaganda machine," receiving an average of 90 hate messages an hour over the course of one month. She knows what fate awaits Duterte's enemies: Senator Leila de Lima's criticism of Duterte led to her being arrested on drug charges and held in prison for one year. Amnesty International has called for her immediate release, claiming the arrest was politically motivated.
Don't think it couldn't--or doesn't--happen here.