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We spent much of the last two decades talking about ways to expand access to information — boosting broadband speeds, extending mobile coverage, building Wikipedia and Google and Github. But now that the exafloods have washed over us, with more waves on the way, many of our new challenges are the result of information overload.
In a world of digital overabundance, how do we protect our privacy and our children’s innocence? How do we highlight the important stuff and block the nonsense? How do we filter, sort, safeguard, and verify?
Information is the currency of a culture and the basis of learning and growth. The information explosion has enriched us innumerably. But if we don’t successfully grapple with some of the downsides, we will forfeit this amazing gift.
Two of today’s biggest threats are disinformation (the spreading of false or misleading content) and deplatforming (blocking access to or manipulating some information hub). Neither is entirely new. But in our networked world, both effects are supercharged, and they strike at the heart of our society’s ability to process information effectively.
The founders thought our democratic experiment required an educated and informed citizenry. The growth of our experiment, likewise, requires the ability to generate new knowledge, which, in turn, requires disagreement, debate, and creativity. Without a grasp of reality and good faith efforts to generate new knowledge, however, the system can founder.
Over the last two years, we heard much about foreign disinformation campaigns targeting the 2016 election. But we’ve now learned that many of these alarmist charges were themselves elaborate disinformation campaigns. Fraudulent documents were pumped into our law enforcement agencies and sprinkled across the government and media. The social media tools used in modest, mostly ineffective ways by Russian trolls were then repurposed in the 2017 and 2018 elections by American political groups posing as anti-disinformation scientists. The self-described investigators of disinformation have in fact become the purveyors of disinformation.
A rational response to spam, vice, disinformation, or mere poor quality is to filter, sort, and prioritize. Thus institutions of all kinds make legitimate decisions to carry or disallow content or activity on their platforms.
Apple, for example, keeps drugs, gambling, and sex, among other vices, off of its App Store. That’s a perfectly good strategy for Apple, its customers, and society. Platforms have the right to develop their own product and culture. Some form of gatekeeping or prioritization at some nodes of our shifting networks will always be necessary.
Our sense of fairness, however, is offended when a supposedly open platform makes arbitrary or outright discriminatory decisions. If, for example, a platform doesn’t want to host political or scientific discussions, fine. But when a platform pretends to host broad ranges of content, including political, social, and scientific debate, then we expect some measure of neutrality.
In the last few years, however, these hubs have increasingly been captured by political activists, their own internal ideologies, or go-with-the-flow fads. Social networks, content repositories, and now even payment networks are deplatforming content and people deemed socially unacceptable. Many of those kicked off the platforms are thoroughly despicable characters, for sure. But mainstream activists, academics, thinkers, and even rival platforms are increasingly getting blocked, shadow banned, or otherwise suppressed by, for example, Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, Patreon, and PayPal. In fact, disinformation campaigns are a common way that rival activists get the hubs to deplatform enemies.
These tactics aren’t unique to the internet, of course. Disinformation is as old as time, or at least human warfare. And deplatforming is an unsavory trend on university campuses and academic journals, which are information hubs of a sort. Networks, however, amplify the power of these tactics. And so the new strategy of ideological badgering can also be found, and is especially potent, at large network nodes. Thus BlackRock, the $6-trillion family of index funds, which owns large percentages of all publicly traded companies, has become one of the activists’ juiciest targets. Instead of heckling every public firm or pension fund to do their political bidding, the activists successfully lobbied BlackRock to establish a “Stewardship Committee” to enforce their views, thus gaining some measure of control over all public firms without ownership of the firms.
The most astonishing current case is perhaps the most dangerous. It involves the apparent abuse of the government’s most powerful and sensitive surveillance tools and databases – the ultimate information platform — by political actors for political ends.
One structural solution to the politicization of centralized incumbents is to build rival institutions and decentralized platforms. arXiv is an alternative to traditional academic publishing, for example, and alternative news outlets continue to proliferate. Crypto- or blockchain-based peer-to-peer systems may be another way of disempowering the politicized platforms.
The current digital platforms might still regain some measure of public trust by recommitting to political and scientific neutrality (and to privacy, etc.). If they don’t, however, rival platforms will only grow faster. Washington, meanwhile, will be even more tempted to step in to regulate who can speak, what they can say, when, where, and how. In a misguided effort to bolster outcast speakers, free speech, a foundation of our system and our nation, will in fact likely suffer.
Some information platforms, such as law enforcement and intelligence, however, will inevitably remain unrivaled and centralized. And here we need a recommitment to professionalism, nonpartisanship, adult judgment, and farsighted citizenship.
Instead, our leadership class over the last many years has been a profound embarrassment. Perhaps poisoned by information overdose, government officials, public intellectuals, and journalists in their 50s, 60s, and 70s have behaved like the worst combination of toddlers and teenagers, gullible and paranoid, narrow-minded and spiteful. Supposedly educated and civilized men and women go on years-long rants on cable TV, while straight news has descended to its least accurate point ever. The commoditization of “the facts” has paradoxically expanded the field for factless nonsense.
What’s worse, closing off the spaces for rational inquiry will only deepen the social vertigo and prevent the course corrections needed to regain our individual and social balance. Despite all the real technological solutions to the challenge of information overload, human leadership and loftier social expectations may prove most important. To regain our balance, we desperately need our powers of science and civic discussion. Hold the current bad actors accountable, yes. But then we need to deescalate. Be skeptical — and invite skepticism of ourselves. Curate platforms for quality, but do not spitefully or ideologically discriminate. Be tough but generous and open.
The country needs robust information tools to defend itself and promote freedom across the globe. By information tools, I mean not just our military and intelligence capabilities. I refer also to free speech, science, and our open society. We cannot survive if these awesome powers are politicized and polluted.
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