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?

Opinions, Judgments, and Creds

It is a fact that the COVID-19 pandemic is leaving an indelible mark on our society. In addition to the tragic number of deaths, which number, by the way, is no more or less than seasonal flu, it has also impacted the world economy, mental health, domestic/other violence, poverty, and general wellbeing of people.

It has also divided people – bringing out the best and worst in all of us.

Fear has become a strong motivator during this pandemic. Fear is prevalent because of uncertainty, and daily news reports of disease numbers are also fueling that fear. Because of uncertainty, people are divided in their views on the pandemic – either they support the pandemic measures (fear taking root in a lot of cases), or they do not (questioning everything with why and how does this make sense?). While I do not doubt that the disease is real, I wonder whether the measures were the best move, especially given that the COVID-19 numbers in no way reflect the severity of the illness as initially communicated.

What’s interesting, however, is that my opinion has created a rift even within my network of friends and colleagues. While I respect the views of others, many people do not do the same when faced with information that contradicts their beliefs. This blanket rejection of opinions is not a good thing for society.

A person that I do not know wanted to know what gives me the right to state my opinion on the pandemic. Am I a virologist? An epidemiologist? An infectious disease expert? I am none of the above, but I am a concerned citizen who is seeing the data and asking what I believe to be thoughtful questions. I don’t always take information at face value. I tend to look for the meaning behind the message. And in my humble opinion, that’s what every person should be doing when faced with information, especially information that keeps changing daily.

Social media has made it excessively easy to have opinions and pass judgments. We feel anonymous and protected when we’re behind a computer screen floating our words in a virtual world. We don’t see the recipients of our words, but we feel their reactions in the words they write to us even though they may not address us by name.

Unless you’re a credentialed scientist, medical expert, or government official and, therefore, credible, it appears that you no longer have a right to an opinion about the pandemic. Readers and listeners judge your motives and question your background.

“What gives you the right to say that the measures may be wrong?”

“I can’t wait for you to end up in ER with COVID-19, and I hope they check your social media accounts to see which side of the pandemic you’re on before they give you treatment.”

“The numbers are real, and people are dying, how do you not see that?”

People are turning into monsters at their keyboards. They’re lashing out because they can’t believe for a minute that scientists, medical experts, governments, or media could be wrong. Those in positions of power would never lie to us, and they would certainly not manipulate us through fear. Would they?

This pandemic has zapped our critical thinking and replaced it with pure emotion. Logic is absent. In some respects, this is understandable. People have lost their jobs and their businesses. As well, their mental health may be in decline, and their domestic situation may be in turmoil. Yet, their expenses remain the same. It appears that those in power have ignored the human condition by focusing exclusively on strategies to stop a killer virus, regardless of costs.

The business loans and wage subsidies from governments are a small step to rectifying problems, but this isn’t the answer. The losses experienced by the lockdowns will never be recouped. There are no winners here other than the one percent.

The responses to this pandemic have been nothing short of a crapshoot. Leaders know this. Most of us do, too.

While we’re in no position (for now) to do anything but follow the rules, there are a few things we can do to help ourselves get through this.

  1. Understand and believe that the disease is real. It is not a hoax.
  2. Understand that proper hygiene is essential and having clean hands is always good – not just during a pandemic!
  3. If you’re active on social media, respect all opinions. If someone’s opinion doesn’t mesh with your beliefs, don’t be nasty and react emotionally. Consider whether there is some truth in the other view. You might learn something.
  4. Respect all people, especially the ones who don’t agree with you.
  5. Know that the measures are not a forever thing (at least, that’s what I’m hoping!).

When this is over, the data will reveal whether the current measures were correct. Until then, respect your fellow citizens, both in-person and online.

In closing, let me leave you with this quote from an anonymous source:

“You must always be willing to truly consider evidence that contradicts your beliefs, and admit the possibility that you may be wrong. Intelligence isn’t knowing everything. It’s the ability to challenge everything you know.”

 

Technology and Social Media on a Collusion Course

In the olden days (remember those?), technology didn’t have a place at work other than as a tool to get work done faster. Today, technology in the workplace is much different than it was even a decade ago.

E-mail has coupled with instant messaging, texting has coupled with mobile phones, and other applications like Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, HootSuite, Klout, Ping…the list is almost endless…seem to be must haves for businesses and individuals alike. These technological aids invading the workplace no longer allow users to get their work done faster in an organization laden with “tradition.” In fact, the collusion of technology and social media in the business environment is having the opposite effect.

The complexities inside a business need an overhaul and this includes updating policies and procedures to include technology wherever possible. For instance, why use “approved” corporate travel agents when booking online is much faster? Get rid of your travel department (or travel roles) and allow employees to book for themselves. Allowing employees to use technology (like online travel booking) rather than relying on “tried and true” in-house processes can actually help speed up business.

And forget about middle management taking recommendations to upper management for decisions. Organizations should either do away with middle management or trust middle management (and other front line staff) to make decisions on behalf of the organization. The hierarchical structure of old no longer fits the technological revolution. If your organization is trying to fit technology into its deep hierarchy, it’s doing it wrong and the approach is hurting its bottom line. Deep hierarchies suck both efficiency and productivity out of the organization. In fact, it’s probably not an overstatement to say that deep hierarchies suck the life out of organizations.

Employees can only be productive if the bombardment of technology is managed efficiently. Give your employees access to all of the information they need, so they (and only they) can decide what information is important to be effective in their jobs. Essentially, it’s about employers loosening the “controls” on what their employees may (or may not) access. At the end of the day, productivity and results matter more than the steps taken to get there. But if those steps are enabled through technology, then productivity is also improved.

Employers that trust and value their employees will reap the results of improved efficiency and productivity and, ultimately, corporate success. Allow your employees to use a full range of technology to manage their jobs in the best way they see fit. When this happens, your employees will also trust you and the organization’s leadership. The end result is a win-win relationship that enables the company’s success.