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?

Government Spending: A Cause of Inefficiency

We often hear that government is inefficient:  They spend too much, they take too much time to provide services, they do not provide quality services, they have too many checkpoints, and so on. But who or what is government? Are employees not the heart of any organization?

Contrary to popular belief, employee performance is not the problem when it comes to efficiency. There are many very industrious and efficient employees in any industry, including government.

The root of inefficiency in government relates to money. More specifically, because governments do not spend their own money, inefficiency can be a serious problem.

To put this into perspective, think about these four possible scenarios relating to spending money (source: Milton Friedman, Free to Choose) (a matrix is also provided):

  1. You spend your own money on yourself. When you spend your own money on yourself, you take care with your money, trying to get the best deal (best quality for least cost).
  2. You spend your own money on somebody else. When you spend your money on somebody else, you still take care to spend the least amount of money, but you are not as concerned about the quality of the product or service. For example: buying gifts for someone else.
  3. You spend somebody else’s money on yourself. When you spend somebody else’s money on yourself, your primary concern is to get the best quality. Money really is no object. For example: buying yourself a gift or enjoying dinner on “somebody else’s dime.”
  4. You spend somebody else’s money on somebody else. When you have somebody else’s money to spend on others, concern for quantity of spending and quality of product and service is not a high consideration. This is the situation with government spending.

Now put yourself in government’s shoes. If you have an almost unlimited supply of someone else’s (i.e., taxpayer) money each year, how will you spend it? Will you really give your systems and processes the due care that you would if you were spending your own money?

Unlike private organizations that spend money on goods and services that the market values, government spending has no information value. That is, organizations that spend to meet market demand will create a profit – this is the value that the organization generates. If it stops generating value for its customers, it stops making money.

In government, no matter how much money is spent and no matter how much output is produced, government does not know the value of its output. This contributes to a cycle of inefficiency in spending and outputs.

When was the last time your government told you how well they spent your money?

While pockets of government departments do forge ahead with implementing efficiency measures, there is generally no check on government efficiency. Governments are inefficient because they can be.