Dangerous Information

During the past couple of months, I was fortunate to have had more time to read books and research papers. I also spent more time on social media (not sure that I can call that a good thing, but it’s true!) – in particular, Facebook and LinkedIn. As I dove into social media, I was surprised to read several comments labeling information as “dangerous to the public.” Several people stressed the importance of removing videos and articles to “protect the public” because of the dangers “to the public” of “misinformation” or “false information.”

When has information – any information – become a danger to the public?

When did we become so incapable of deciphering fact from fiction? Or useful information from wrong information?

When have we ever before proclaimed knowledge to be dangerous? This call for censorship of information is not only surprising, but it is also very concerning.

The concept of information being dangerous in the hands of the public is undoubtedly true – to communists. Communist regimes rely on information censorship – the less that people know and the more targeted the government message, the more likely the people will conform to government rule. But that is communism – a trusted cousin of socialism – not democracy.

Democracy implies freedom. Freedom to elect government representatives. Freedom to choose. Freedom to access information. Freedom of media (i.e., media without government intervention). However, democracies appear to be eroding even though more than half of the world’s countries are democracies.

According to Pew Research, in Canada, for example, only 66 percent of those polled favoured free speech, and 73 percent favoured free media. These numbers are shocking, but not inexplicable.

First, the Internet appears to be playing a pivotal role in undermining democracies. And second, corporate and government agendas generally do not serve democratic goals or achieve democratic outcomes, serving only the purposes of those in power.

Neil Postman wrote in 1985 that “we no longer engage in civil public discourse. We are simply amusing ourselves to death.” We see this in social media. Look at Facebook, for example.

Facebook has 2.36 billion users, and most of those users have a low tolerance for long-form text. The younger generation, especially, will not read if the text involves more than a few paragraphs. Few among them will read a book, but they will engage extensively with short quips on Facebook.

According to James S. O’Rourke, a University of Notre Dame professor whose research specialty is reputation management, “news sites have discovered that more people will click on the video than scroll through the text of a story.” The problem with this, he says, is that “no man can understand his own argument until he has visited the position of a man who disagrees.”

Given this, it’s not surprising that the majority “now live with a thin collection of facts, distorted information, and an insufficient cognitive base from which to make a thoughtful decision. Accurate information is no longer driving out false ideas, propaganda, innuendo, or deceit.”

Research on technology conducted by Janna Anderson and Lee Rainie revealed that our use of technology will weaken democracy between now and 2030 due to the speed and scope of reality distortion, the decline of journalism, and the impact of surveillance capitalism. Even those who expressed optimism often voiced concerns.

An internet pioneer and technology developer predicted that by 2030, as much as 75 percent of the world’s population will be enslaved by artificial intelligence-based surveillance systems. These systems will be developed in China and exported around the world:  “These systems will keep every citizen under observation 24 hours a day, seven days a week, monitoring their every action.”

Let that information sink in while you consider the implications of such systems in democracies.

Dan Gillmor, co-founder of the News Co/Lab at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, and professor of practice in digital media literacy commented that “governments (and their corporate partners) are broadly using technology to create a surveillance state, and what amounts to law by unaccountable black-box algorithm, far beyond anything Orwell imagined.”

He goes on to say that “this can only happen in a society that can’t be bothered to protect liberty – or is easily led/stampeded into relinquishing it – and that is happening in more and more of the Western democracies.” He states that institutions such as journalism are failing to protect liberty.

The impact of technology on democracies is a concern, and this new call to censor “dangerous” information is doubly concerning since it directly impacts our freedom.

Who has the right to take down videos that pose a counter-argument to government views? Who has the right to remove articles that don’t voice the sentiment of the majority? Who has the right to narrate a different story to the one told?

As technology becomes progressively more robust and social media even more prevalent, will any of us notice how easily our freedoms are stripping away?

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