Technological evolutions have always heralded new ‘ages’ upon civilizations, marking a shift in focus, in ability, and in new challenges. As does nature, so too does technology evolve at break-neck scale; the jump from hand-held tools and labor to industrialization was centuries, industrialization to the internet was 100 years, internet to e-commerce was a decade, and now deeply integrated communication, VR/ AR, digital social mobility are all here after just a few years.
Today a new age is dawning, the Age of Disinformation, taking aim at geopolitical movements and moments like the Presidency of Donald Trump, BREXIT, religiosity, and even entire countries establishing ‘shadow units’ to both combat criticism online as well as seed disinformation across the net.
You’ve probably heard the term “Great Firewall” used to describe censorship in China, but have you heard of “The Great Shopping Mall”? I only learned about it recently In a great piece for the Knight First Amendment at Columbia University, Researcher An Xiao Mina puts it like this:
“Take a visit to the malls of Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu or countless other Chinese cities, and they look and operate like the malls of Minnesota, Manila and Mexico. All around the world, shopping malls are designed first and foremost for commerce, but double as a place of quasi-public gathering for parties, families and bored teenagers.
“Political dissent is not unheard of in malls, but it is rarely welcome. There are no dissidents, no homeless people, no gangs, no solicitors, no electioneering. Public squares they are not, even while they serve a function for the public. So long as you play by the rules of both capital and state, you are welcome. Good luck if you do not.”
For those of us in the West who value the freedoms and liberties our democratic institutions provide, the time has come for a fundamental rethink about the internet and not only about how it is managed, but also how we interact with it. Misinformation, disinformation, free speech, safety, privacy, power dynamics and censorship are all issues that need to be addressed, debated and explored.
As An Xiao Mina concludes: “The internet is still young, and there remain opportunities for a new global logic of digital governance that can act more in accordance with international human rights norms while fostering technological innovation and strong economic growth. China’s government has presented its model, and now the world must decide its version too.”
Tackling disinformation head-on is a challenge, a growing, monumental, almost endless challenge, but it’s succeeding in some countries. In Taiwan, despite violent disinformation campaigns during an election cycle, the incumbent President won, thanks to the country-wide approach to fact-checking and distribution of results rapidly online.
In Foreign Policy, Walter Kerr and Macon Phillips wrote: “Taiwan takes a whole-of-society approach to fighting disinformation. Its civic technology community works with social media companies, like the island’s popular messaging service Line, to identify, debunk, and downrank viral conspiracy theories on social media platforms.”
Most importantly of all is this fact: “When someone comes across a news story that sounds fishy, they can send it to the popular chatbot Cofacts, where teams of volunteers then rapidly research the claim to determine its validity.”
Rapid disinformation fact-checking distributed widely to tackle rapid disinformation.
The likes of Twitter and Facebook, the biggest social media giants on the planet, are in the early stages of something similar, notably since the 2020 US Presidential Election – alerts spring up on verifiably false tweets and posts, and have been utilized throughout the COVID pandemic. But in the west, there’s yet no Taiwan-style approach.
So how is disinformation tackled, especially when it can rise just as fast as normal digital content? A country-wide effort must be taken, connecting internationally to open-source verified fact-checks, and with that significant funding must be released to the effort. National digital hubs to combat disinformation, distribute verified facts, work to establish trending demographics for those most targeted with disinformation, and then work to specifically educate these demographics on the dangers of disinformation and how to question it themselves.
Significant funding, significant infrastructure, and significant effort by Governments, hand-in-hand with the world’s leading tech companies, will chip away at the bouldering digital-age problem we are now increasingly facing. The knock-on benefits of this? New jobs drive employment higher, an educated, critical thinking society pushes society further, and damaging disinformation – fake news that can genuinely cause harm to people – is vastly reduced, or at the very least, the impact of such falsehoods are reduced.
This isn’t a case of digital control like with China or Russia, complete digital domination and restriction like North Korea, or rewriting ‘truths’ like 1984 – quite the opposite. A measured, open-sourced, open-to-enquiry and open-to-criticism infrastructure that pushes the values of democracy and verifiable veracity to the treatment of truth. A bastion of the Digital Age.
Ron Deibart said: “The very fact that you recognize that social media has this kind of toxic mess characteristic to it is a hopeful sign, because it means you won’t just accept it. And then that leads you to thinking: ‘well, what can we do about it?’”
“We can borrow an analogy from environmental movements where they say ‘think globally, start locally’”; The Age of Disinformation is a crippling issue right now, but I strongly believe – I strongly hope – that with the right global effort, it will become merely a chapter in the digital history books our children and theirs will learn about in school, developing critical thinking alongside an infrastructure that challenges falsehoods and encourages the truth.
The efforts we make today will shape the Digital Ages of tomorrow. And it all starts with the truth.
Alexander von Kaldenberg is the Founder & CEO of GoChip Pet Technology and Director of Marketing for Velas AG.