Speaking of media and information failures…
Any competent historian will confirm that propaganda and misinformation have always been with us. (Opponents of Thomas Jefferson warned that bibles would be burned if he were elected). The difference between that history and the world we now occupy is, of course, the Internet, and its ability to spread mis- and disinformation worldwide with the click of a computer key.
As a recent column in the New York Times put it, the Internet has caused misinformation to metastasize.
The column noted that on July 8, Trump had taken to Truth Social, his pathetic social media platform, to claim that he had really won the 2020 presidential vote in Wisconsin, despite all evidence to the contrary. Barely 8000 people shared that “Truth.” And yet
Within 48 hours of Mr. Trump’s post, more than one million people saw his claim on at least dozen other sites. It appeared on Facebook and Twitter, from which he has been banished, but also YouTube, Gab, Parler and Telegram, according to an analysis by The New York Times.
The spread of Mr. Trump’s claim illustrates how, ahead of this year’s midterm elections, disinformation has metastasized since experts began raising alarms about the threat. Despite years of efforts by the media, by academics and even by social media companies themselves to address the problem, it is arguably more pervasive and widespread today.
It isn’t just Facebook and Twitter. The number of platforms has proliferated. Some 69 million people have joined those like Parler, Gab, Truth Social, Gettr and Rumble, sites that brag about being “conservative alternatives” to Big Tech. And even though many of those who have flocked to such platforms have been banned from larger sites, “they continue to spread their views, which often appear in screen shots posted on the sites that barred them.”
When the Internet was in its infancy, I was among those who celebrated the diminished–actually, the obliterated–role of the gatekeeper. Previously, editors at traditional news sources–our local newspapers and television news stations–had decided what was newsworthy, what their audiences needed to know, and imposed certain rules that dictated whether even those chosen stories could be reported. The most important of those rules was verification; could the reporter confirm the accuracy of whatever was being alleged?
True, the requirement that news be verified slowed down reporting, and often prevented an arguably important story from being published at all. Much depended upon the doggedness of the reporter. But professional journalists– purveyors of that much derided “lame stream” journalism–were gatekeepers preventing the widespread dissemination of unsubstantiated rumors, conspiracies and outright lies.
Today, anyone with a computer and the time to use it can spread a story, whether that story is verifiable or an outright invention. We no longer have gatekeepers. Even the larger and presumably more responsible platforms are intent upon generating “clicks” and increasing “engagement,” the time users spend on their sites. Accuracy is a minor concern, if it is a concern at all.
The Wild West of today’s information environment is enormously dangerous to civil society and democratic self-government. But now, an even more ominous threat looms: Billionaires are buying social media platforms. Elon Musk, currently the world’s richest man, now owns Twitter, “a social media network imbued with so much political capital it could fracture nations.”
It’s a trend years in the making. From the political largess of former Facebook executives like Sheryl Sandberg and Joel Kaplan to the metapolitics of Peter Thiel, tech titans have long adopted an inside/outside playbook for conducting politics by other means.
But recent developments, including Donald Trump’s investment in Twitter clone Truth Social and Kanye West’s supposed agreement to buy the ailing social network Parler, illustrate how crucial these new technologies have become in politics. More than just communication tools, platforms have become the stage on which politics is played.
The linked article was written by Joan Donovan, research director of Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, and it details the multiple ways in which these billionaires can deploy the power of social media to the detriment of American democracy. As she concludes:
In many ways, the infamous provocateur journalist Andrew Breitbart was right: politics are downstream of culture. To this I’d add that culture is downstream of infrastructure. The politics we get are the ones that sprout from our technology, so we should cultivate a digital public infrastructure that does not rely on the whims of billionaires. If we do not invest in building an online public commons, our speech will only be as free as our hopefully benevolent dictators say it is.
A world in which Peter Thiel and Elon Musk are informational gatekeepers is a dystopian world I don’t want to inhabit.