TRUTH, LIES AND THE INTERNET: SOME THOUGHTS

Demos yesterday published a new report “Truth, lies and the internet: A report into young people’s digital fluency” by Jamie Bartlett & Carl Miller. While it contains a number of points that can’t, reasonably, be disagreed with, it’s one of those reports about the “internet” that lacks a proper historical and social context, drawing parallels with history but then assuming that because the internet is “new” it’s challenges are some how sui generis. It bugged me enough to pen a fairly lengthy response…

Bartlett & Miller start with a reasonable premise – that the internet is making vast new amounts of information available. They’ve done research that demonstrates that access to this information is having an impact on the way young people do their school work.

The internet is a force for good, the authors concede – widening access, empowering individuals, uniting people across vast distances – but it also has a “dark side”…

 “there is a loudening[i] chorus of voices raising the alarm… Most of these concerns relate to young people, such as the wide availability of pornography, cyber-bullying, internet privacy, and online stalkers and groomers. Some writers have pointed to the possible long-term detrimental health effects of online stimulation, such as ‘techno-stress’, ‘information fatigue syndrome’, ‘cognitive overload’, and ‘time famine’… worries that the internet has made our thinking shallower and less reflective… that the brain’s ‘neuroplasticity’ … is adapting to the ‘wow and yuck’ sensationalism of the digital world, resulting in short attention spans, an inability to empathise and a shaky sense of identity.”[ii]

So far, so familiar. The arguments that the internet is dumbing society down are well rehearsed. Bartlett & Miller concede that conservatives have had the same concerns about new communications technologies all the way back to Plato’s condemnation of letters[iii]  and that these concerns fade when society and technology reach an accommodation. But then they make the same mistake as so many commentators on new technologies – they assume that “this time it’s different” and that this moral panic is justified.

And that’s more or less where things start to go pear-shaped in this analysis.  Because, according to the authors, the internet is uniquely responsible for the easy spread of  “misinformation, propaganda and conspiracy theories”  and “its future is staked on how easily and effectively information and disinformation can be disentangled.”

Now I’m not going to argue that the internet isn’t a rich source of nonsense – from harmless pranks designed to catch out the credulous to spam, scams, schemes and scurrilous lies – but my problem with this report is that it assumes that the internet is somehow unique. Bartlett and Miller concede that:

“There is nothing new in the challenge of sorting the wheat from the chaff… Simply put, whether offline or online, we need to distinguish good from bad information and that requires the application of both personal techniques and skills that allow one to make a careful, reasoned judgment.”[iv]

An excellent, accurate, point – but why apply it here only to the internet? Because, the authors contend, the internet,  has unique features that make it especially dangerous.

  • No gatekeepers – there are no editors, no peer-review, no one posing “certain tests of veracity and authenticity that needed to be passed before the content is permitted into the public sphere”[v]
  • The pedigree problem – much information on the internet is anonymous, we can’t tell who provided it therefore we can’t judge what its worth.
  • Adults can’t cope with the internet and therefore can’t supervise their children.
  • Pseudo-sites and propaganda – people are using the internet to spread pernicious ideas (attacking Martin Luther King, denying the holocaust…)
  • The picture always lies – not only are people lying on the internet, they’re making it look nice!
  • Group reinforcement – the internet is “Balkanised”, people only communicating with those who share their interests.

Again this isn’t a new analysis and these are familiar arguments but, since they form the basis of Barlett & Miller’s contention that “something needs to be done” it’s worth considering them for a moment. The internet might be short of officially appointed gatekeepers but those past gatekeepers weren’t always benign – we should be glad that the days when censors (whether governmental or institutional) could control debates and shut down dissenting voices. The history of science is littered with radical discoveries that were suppressed or ignored for years or decades because the entrenched view was privileged by gatekeepers who resisted the evidence of change. And political censorship remains a real threat to freedom. We should welcome the fact that, increasingly, we live in a society where fact and opinion can be judged on their own merit, not because of the prestige of the author. Yes it’s true that the internet allows access to propaganda – some of it hateful – and that it can make distasteful opinions look superficially glossy and appealing but those opinions were always out there. Are they more-or-less hateful because they are rendered in HTML5 rather than passed around in grubby, photocopied pamphlets?

Holocaust denial is vile. But just as the internet makes it easier for Holocaust deniers to spread their lies, it makes it easier for those who recognise the truth to make available the overwhelming evidence that supports the historical facts.

As for adults not being able to cope with the internet, well that’s a quirk of our moment in history not a systemic issue with the internet. The internet is approaching the point where it will have a second generation of users who have grown up taking access more-or-less for granted. I’ve been online at home since around 1994 – that’s seventeen years – I first used a network connected computer about a decade before that. It won’t be long until the generation of children who have grown up accepting the “information superhighway”[vi] as a fact of everyday life are bringing up their own families and perhaps then this nonsense about a generational digital divide can be put to bed for good. But, until then, there’s nothing mystical about the technologies children are using and nothing that would prevent members of an older generation understanding them with the enough effort. Nor is supervision of what children do and see on the internet qualitatively different from supervision of what children see on television or film or read in books. It requires effort, that’s true, but parents who allow children to read on their own, listen to music via headphones or put televisions, games consoles and DVD players in their children’s bedrooms are opening up unregulated conduits to information that may be age-inappropriate. Any technology has the potential for abuse, all technologies require parents to strike a balance between the benefits of access and the potential for children to be exposed to inappropriate material.

Finally, though, I will agree with Bartlett & Miller on the dangers of the internet strengthening some small group identities – and of possibly creating feedback that can make these groups intolerant of alternative view points and tending to favour extreme interpretations of facts and events. Anyone with serious experience of online discussion will be anecdotally familiar with such behaviour and there’s good research[vii] that’s identified how and why this happens.

But small groups turning inwards, enforcing rigid dogma, suspicious of alternative ways of thinking or living – these are not unique features of the internet. In small towns and villages and in traditional families all across the world, this is how order is enforced. For those who want to break away from such narrow, controlling groups the past only allowed physical escape to the cosmopolitanism of big cities. The internet is nothing if not cosmopolitan. There will always be those who seek only the reinforcement of their existing prejudices just as there will always be those who only want to broaden their horizons (and the rest of us who sit somewhere in the middle – balancing both urges in differing proportion). The internet enables the expression of both desires.

Bartlett & Miller can’t have it both ways – they can’t complain that the internet allows access to too much information and then grumble because people don’t immerse themselves in it as much as they’d wish.

[There’s a danger of this review becoming longer than Demos’s pamphlet – so let me skip to the conclusion…]

The answer to these problems, Bartlett & Miller claim, is the promotion of digital literacy and, in particular, digital fluency

“the ability to find and critically evaluate online information. This requires a combination of new and old techniques: a mix of the classic tropes of any discerning historian or journalist with some very specific knowledge about how the internet functions.”[viii]

We need to teach children to be “net-savvy” – understanding elements of how the internet works – to hone their critical faculties and to encourage them to access diverse sources of information.

Now I don’t disagree with any of this.

We should be teaching children to understand the way the internet work. They should know that, for example, Google and Bing are not value-free providers of information and that there’s a whole industry devoted to distorting search results in favour of particular providers. Children should be able to balance online information, weigh its worth and understand why some sources are trustworthy and some are not. And, yes, children should be encouraged to read widely.

But why are these issues only couched in terms of “digital” media.

Children shouldn’t just be educated about the shortcomings of the internet as a medium – they should be taught about the way all media apply filters to information and the way form can distort meaning. Newspapers, driven by advertising and brutal competition, leap from crisis to crisis – creating drama and focusing on short-term sensation rather than long-term systemic problems and they have a tendency to seek avoid challenging the prejudices of core groups of readers they can’t afford to alienate. Television news, in the 24 hour broadcast era, has shifted away from analysis to a focus on eye-candy and on packaged news often sponsored by corporate interests. Academic publishing is controlled by a small number of publishers seeking to control access to maximise profit.

We need to encourage young (and old) minds to understand the processes behind the construction of all the information they receive, however it is packaged.

We should promote the development of critical faculties of children in all areas, not just in assessing the accuracy of online information. We live in a nation that is dangerously statistically illiterate – where risks are often misrepresented and misunderstood – and where pseudo-science flourishes. In a world where anti-science is on the rise, where climate-deniers and evolution-deniers, homeopaths and spiritualists, bull-shitters and snake-oil salesmen circle like vultures above waiting for the opportunity to fall upon the weak, we need to give citizens the tools to understand when information – whatever its source – is worth.

“Research has revealed information quality does not appear to be of significance to many digital natives, but that decisions about information quality is based on site design, rather than more accurate checks.”[ix]

This may be true – but, again, it is hardly a unique to the internet. Any fraudster knows the benefits of a convincing letterhead and a flashy business card.

Finally, of course it would be best if children could be encouraged to access a wide variety of resources – not just to pick those that are most neatly aligned with their existing prejudices. But, again, the Demos report can’t have it both ways. It can’t complain that the internet risks overwhelming children with too much information and then complain that they are too rigidly filtering that information tsunami.

And, whereas in the past the student, teacher or parent seeking to challenge narrow viewpoints had limited access to information – especially where they were seeking to challenge their community’s accepted orthodoxy – the internet provides the opportunity to access almost an infinite array of dissenting and contrary opinions. Far more than a small school or branch library.

So, yes, by all means let’s teach our children to understand where the information they’re reading comes from, give them tools to assess its worth and encourage them to challenge the prejudices with which they are brought up.

But let’s not pretend that these issues are somehow uniquely important to the digital media.

The Demos report can be downloaded from here and freely distributed (but, it would be nice, Demos if when creating your reports in PDF you made it easy for people to cut and paste your text by not rendering the fonts in a way that makes it impossible to cut&paste – if you’re going to tell people you know about the internet…)



[i]  “loudening” – really? The Oxford commas I can forgive, just, but “loudening”? I louden, you louden, she loudens, we louden? Pedantic? Me? No doubt my respone is entirely without error! 🙂

[ii] Page 10&11.

[iii] And probably before – I’ve no doubt that Bog turned to Bag, as he chiselled out the first crude representations of the number of cows he owned, and complained that in the good old days people used to be able to remember all this stuff without fancy new technology.

[iv] Page 13

[v] Page 14

[vi] Remember when we used to call it that? I remember when it was all green fields and Compuserve around here.

[vii] Somewhere on my bookcase, can’t be arsed to look. Cass Sunstein’s work gets a reference on Page 24 of this report – I remember Republic.com making some good points.

[viii] Page 19

[ix] Page 20

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