The Internet has given us unparalleled access to information. Yet it is failing to offer reasonable protections to enable users a reliable way to distinguish truth and facts from lies and disinformation. The online world, in terms of content, is like the wild, wild West, unfenced, unrestrained and unfettered. But that’s the price of freedom, we like to say. Amid the turmoil and tumult, the truth will emerge unscathed.
I’m beginning to think not.
There is effectively no content filter governing the flow of information in cyberspace. There are no editors acting as gatekeepers, no monitors of veracity; no bullshit meters.
Well, you might say, at least there is no censorship, and that’s good.
That’s a specious argument. Censorship is not the issue. Truth is. And the Internet is failing the world by allowing or sitting idly by as websites and social media platforms compromised by dark forces (not just Russia) whose sole purpose is to turn truth on its backside and substitute falsehood, propaganda and outright lies for business, personal or political purposes.
Clearly, something needs to be done. I have some ideas I will outline in a followup to this post. My goal is to initiate a discussion based upon the simple goal of restoring trust in digital information on the World Wide Web.
Let me explain how. The user part is easier, although enormously challenging. People who use the Internet will need to approach their Internet use with a healthy dose of skepticism. That is, much like a newspaper or broadcast editor, people must learn to suspend their beliefs or curb their emotions and look at content with a hesitant, even suspicious eye. What is the source of the information? Who operates the website? Is that restaurant review reliable? Is my daughter’s physical ed teacher really a sexual deviant? Is this vacation home on the beach, or two miles away?
I can hear you laughing. Right, dude. People won’t change their ways. Ain’t ever going to happen. I get that, but perhaps this would be a more thought-provoking argument: would you feel more confident in using the Internet if there were some controls over content and anonymity?
Of course, the widely-held notion that the Internet is so big and so outside anyone’s control that it can’t possibly be reined in. Besides, even if the Web could be restrained, who would want to?
You could say the same thing about smoking, or child abuse, or the opioid epidemic. Just because the challenges are difficult is no reason not to push for reform. The World Wide Web is a metastasizing disinformation tumor that is encroaching upon everything we rely upon to inform our debates, our political decision-making and our judgement of the critical issues confronting the country, not to mention our more mundane purchase decisions, restaurant reviews or ratings of new cars or public universities.
Unless we commit to advocating fundamental changes in the way the Internet operates, things are only going to get worse. As we are learning to our sorrow, some people think that facts are fungible and easily massaged to suit one’s purpose. The looming threat is crystal clear: without guardrails, unreliable, false content poses a challenge to effective government, trusted commerce, and personal well-being. Moreover, this is not a threat limited to the United States. The entire world is linked as if with an umbilical cord to the World Wide Web. Lies, propaganda and cyberbullying clog that cord, choking off productive discourse, relations among governments, and global channels of commerce.
Yes, it’s that bad.
What’s to be done? That’s the subject of Part Two, which will appear here in a few days. In the meantime, I encourage your thoughts and ideas.