Oct 07,2017 – JORDAN TIMES – Kelly Born
Concern about the proliferation of disinformation, misinformation and propaganda has reached the point where many governments are proposing new legislation. But the solutions on offer reflect an inadequate understanding of the problem — and could have negative unintended consequences.
This past June, Germany’s parliament adopted a law that includes a provision for fines of up to 50 million euros ($59 million) on popular sites like Facebook and YouTube, if they fail to remove “obviously illegal” content, such as hate speech and incitements to violence, within 24 hours.
Singapore has announced plans to introduce similar legislation next year to tackle “fake news”.
In July, the US Congress approved sweeping sanctions against Russia, partly in response to its alleged sponsorship of disinformation campaigns aiming to influence US elections.
Dialogue between the US Congress and the Facebook, Twitter and Google has intensified in the last few weeks, as clear evidence of campaign-ad purchases by Russian entities has emerged.
Such action is vital if we are to break the vicious circle of disinformation and political polarisation that undermines democracies’ ability to function.
But while these legislative interventions all target digital platforms, they often fail to account for at least six ways in which today’s disinformation and propaganda differ from yesterday’s.
First, there is the democratisation of information creation and distribution.
As Rand Waltzman, formerly of the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency, recently noted, any individual or group can now communicate with — and thereby influence — large numbers of others online.
This has its benefits, but it also carries serious risks — beginning with the loss of journalistic standards of excellence, like those typically enforced within established media organisations.
Without traditional institutional media gatekeepers, political discourse is no longer based on a common set of facts.
The second feature of the digital information age — a direct by-product of democratisation — is information socialisation.
Rather than receiving our information directly from institutional gatekeepers who, despite often-flawed execution, were fundamentally committed to meeting editorial standards, today we acquire it via peer-to-peer sharing.
Such peer networks may elevate content based on factors like clicks or engagement among friends, rather than accuracy or importance.
Moreover, information that is filtered through networks of friends can result in an echo chamber of news that reinforces one’s own biases (though there is considerable uncertainty about how serious a problem this represents).
It also means that people who otherwise might consume news in moderation are being inundated with political polemic and debate, including extreme positions and falsehoods, which heighten the risk of misinforming or polarising wider swathes of the public.
The third element of today’s information landscape is atomisation — the divorce of individual news stories from brand or source.
Previously, readers could easily distinguish between non-credible sources, like the colourful and sensational tabloids in the checkout line at the supermarket, and credible ones, such as longstanding local or national newspapers.
Now, by contrast, an article shared by a friend or family member from The New York Times may not look all that different than one from a conspiracy theorist’s blog. And, as a recent study from the American Press Institute found, the original source of an article matters less to readers than who in their network shares the link.