xkcd 1081

Back in 2006, Time magazine awarded its person of the year to us. The Internet. Time writer Lev Grossman (of The Magicians fame) wrote the following:

“[2006 is] a story about community and collaboration on a scale never seen before. It’s about the cosmic compendium of knowledge Wikipedia and the million-channel people’s network YouTube and the online metropolis MySpace. It’s about the many wresting power from the few and helping one another for nothing and how that will not only change the world, but also change the way the world changes.”

How naive this sounds nowadays. It is true that the World Wide Web has the potential “for bringing together the small contributions of millions of people and making them matter”, as the Time article states. But it is also true that the Internet has become a cesspool of disinformation, fake news and conspiracy theories that threaten our democratic institutions.

At some point we thought that the Internet was not going to be like that. Cyber-utopianism did indeed paint a picture of a networked environment where collaboration would lead to a more open and functional society, but what we got was a set of commercial walled gardens and filter bubbles where you only read what you want to, and the algorithms will filter out anything that disagrees with your own views.

While I have been tempted by cyber-utopianism from time to time, I have been trying to stay away from anything resembling filter bubbles in all of my online interactions. Back in 2007, Cass Sunstein had already warned about the possible dangers of “the daily me”, a Web tailored only to feed you with the information that you liked, filtering out dissenting views. But filter bubbles are just part of the problem, one of the most odious and prevalent problems about online environments is the erosion of expertise, the blurring of authority, the disappearance of gatekeepers,  and the growing belief that all opinions are equal.

In the analogue world, sources mattered. A news item from the Times, the New York Times, Le Monde, El Pais, o Der Spiegel carried weight because old media was seen as a reliable purveyor of information. The digital age has brought about an environment where everyone is a publisher, and a teenager in Montenegro can put together a believable-looking site that feeds disinformation. On the Internet, nobody knows you’re not a journo.

The power of user-generated content is also the problem for trust and believability. We are more suspicious of mainstream media because you can find so much more online than what is available in the limited pages of a newspaper that you start to suspect that they are purposefully hiding information from you. Obscure YouTube channels become authorities, and in many an online argument I have been told that if only I watch this persuasive video on flat earth / creationism / moon landing hoax / 9-11 / UFOs / gamergate, I will change my mind. When I inform these people that I find such sources laughable, I get accused of being a paid shill, a sheeple, or one of those who have not taken the red pill. In this world authority is meaningless, and any person on Twitter feels entitled to argue back with an expert. Google searches are deemed a valuable skill, and truth is measured by whether you can find a Wikipedia page that agrees with you.

Many things are happening to make the situation worse. People now find it difficult to identify reliable sources, with frightening studies conducted where teenagers are incapable of identifying whether a website is reliable or not. Anyone who has been in academia will know that people tend to over-estimate their capacity to find information online. Another increasingly disturbing phenomenon is that experts are often ignored, or even mocked online, as anyone with a search engine feels that they are capable of making informed decisions based on the first page of their search results.

What can we do to fix the situation?

Education is key. Being able to identify reliable data must be one of the most important skills that we can teach our children. We need to understand that just because something is online it doesn’t mean that it’s true. This sounds insultingly basic, but the availability of websites filled with misinformation is precisely what got us into this mess in the first place.

And trust experts, if you wouldn’t trust an anonymous youtuber with a cancer diagnosis, then why would you trust them with knowledge of climate science?



Daniel · December 13, 2016 at 1:00 pm

Hi Andres,
I agree. Education is part of the solution. Maybe the most important one. Additional ones may be ( just an idea that popped up lately): let people pay on social media to publish, let people pay to react or put a limit on the number of posts (of any kind on any network) per period. This will on one hand reduce the number of spreading hate and untruthful posts significantly and make people think twice before reacting/posting. Secondly the money can further fund ways to facilitate fact and source checking (automated and manually). Of course there is a risk of loosing users to a free network. One should become more aware (education) that free is often less independent, lower quality and easier to manipulate. Ways should be found to cope with this. Like for instance let payment go through amount of usage of the internet (data/posts/etc.) instead of putting unlimited amounts of rubbish into the world . Our food and newspapers aren’t free either.. of course, just a thought and I am aware there might still be gaps to close here. But something should be done and tried.

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