“But there’s no justice higher up, either,” says Salieri in Pushkin’s Mozart and Salieri. Today’s information and communications world seems to be a unique illustration of this claim. The internet-generated disintegration of reality is leading us to a global collapse and doing it so faster than any conflict or coronaviruses combined.
As usual, the world is full of challenges, problems and threats. Climate change is frightening in view of its all-encompassing consequences. The outbreak of a deadly infection caused by the imprudent consumption of snakes and bats in Wuhan are stirring up worldwide panic. Bloody conflicts that are often fraught with global war and wholesale destruction continue to plague humankind. There is strong social discontent growing in many seemingly prosperous countries. Not to mention the constant fear of economic upheaval and bankruptcy or the many other things that worry a nervous and shortsighted humanity.
At the same time, another potential issue capable of amplifying the impact of every problem that concerns people has surfaced in recent years: the new information and communications environment, or what we call the internet, which has only taken shape in the past two or three decades.
I was struck by the fact that an internet pandemic rather than a coronavirus epidemic broke out in Tyumen, the city Russian evacuees from disease-hit China were sent to. What I see are malicious and unacceptable posts on social media that illustrate that a lot of people are equally prone to hatred towards others as well as susceptibility to conscious or unconscious disinformation.
The information and communications environment (social media, online messengers, and other technical innovations) has weakened our capacity to distinguish truth from lies, to verify facts, and to find more or less trustworthy information.
The coronavirus epidemic includes a spate of malicious reports of infected patients by the hundreds of thousands, dead bodies in hospitals, and God only knows what else, both in Tyumen and in the rest of the world.
The climate debate is also a source of amazement with the radical differences between the images of the world drawn up by supporters of rival theories, something that raises the question as to whether a discussion is possible at all in this situation. Perceptions of what is happening in the Middle East have largely ceased to depend on factual information and have become the consequence of someone’s agenda, whose origin is equally uncertain.
At this point, one is likely to hear the objection that reliable information has always been a scarce commodity. During the era of the Crusades, for example, images of the world that inspired Richard the Lionheart and Saladin were little different from those of the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Donald Trump, if not more so. But centuries ago, information arrived in trickles rather than torrents and the number of decision-makers among the cognoscenti was so limited that it was possible to have a discussion, even if slow and distorted, to determine what was really going on.
The current stormy sea of information makes a more or less shared truth extremely difficult, if not impossible.
The challenge is not just that information is in short supply, or that people have different mindsets and are mostly biased, or that they lie – some consciously, others unconsciously; this has always been the case and imperfect human nature has changed little. The challenge is that the human ability to process information has, for a number of reasons, deteriorated dramatically. The verification mechanism has fallen away; there is no longer a hierarchy of news, and society has lost control of the data circulating in its vessels.
The disintegration of the world information system has catalyzed today’s problems and made them immeasurably more dangerous. Ordinary people, leaders, analysts and experts are no longer able to engage in a constructive conversation. They are incapacitated by the uncontrollable flood of information, whose claim to credibility is suspect, and by the disintegration of the hierarchy of news, data, facts, and information sources, a hierarchy essential for a culture and a civilization. Both expert opinion and the professional media have been devalued as well. Today, their voices carry little more weight than that of the man on the street. This does not mean, however, that the opinion of a giddy teenager has no right to exist. But is it equitable with the view of a competent scientist or an experienced politician?
I cannot resist the temptation to quote Pushkin’s Mozart and Salieri again.
Mozart: Just now.
I was walking here, coming to show you something,
And as I went by a tavern, suddenly
I heard a fiddle… No, my friend Salieri,
You’ve never heard anything funnier
In all your life… This blind fiddler in the tavern
Was sawing away at ‘‘Voi che sapete.’’ Splendid!
I couldn’t resist, I brought the fiddler here
So I could treat you to his art.
(An old blind man with a violin enters.)
Play some Mozart for us!
(The fiddler plays an aria from Don Giovanni; Mozart laughs.)
Salieri: And you can laugh?
Mozart: Oh, Salieri!
Really you don’t laugh at that?
I don’t find it funny when some worthless dauber
Makes smears and drips on Raphael’s Madonna,
I don’t find it funny when some vulgar showman
Reels off a parody that dishonors Dante.
Be off, old man.
Mozart: Wait: here’s something for you, Drink to my health.
(The old man exits.)
(Translated by Nancy K. Anderson)
But if in Mozart’s times, the old man meekly retired to have a drink, today, he might have thrown out both Mozart and Salieri.
So, we are likely to underestimate the main threat looming before modern humankind, the threat of information chaos capable of destroying the human communication mechanisms and community life as such.
I understand that many have an opposing view. We are living in the era of the internet with its incredible freedoms and communication velocity. The volumes of available information are growing at an amazing rate. Millions of people connect via social media and have the opportunity, at least theoretically, to directly communicate with each other and to create a variety of communities. The treasures of world culture seem to be just a click away. Moreover, we are promised a global information environment supported by thousands of satellites. But it is also true that no one knows who will control this system or where it will lead us.
What I would like to know is whether this abundance of information and communication has made knowledge more accurate, promoted education, or increased tolerance?
A friend recently said he had joined a wine lovers community created, ostensibly, for sharing news and refining wine-drinking techniques.
“Well, have you managed to refine your knowledge and technique?” I asked him.
The answer was negative. But, he said, he now has a good outlet from which to distribute his wrath, bile and annoyance in an acceptable manner and feel satisfied in the process. This was a vehicle for self-assertion and a pretext for everyday mockery.
But the internet’s influence on people and personal morality merits a separate discussion. The internet has largely become a safe vent for hatred and aggression. In the real world, after all, aggression is punishable.
But catering to peoples’ disdain, for which the internet has become a nutritional broth, is not the main problem. The challenge is how to use information and make reasonable decisions based on at least marginally reliable data.
Recently, Stephen King announced he was closing his Facebook account because the social medium is full of false and unreliable information. Many other respected people think this as well.
People have indeed created an information abundance, along with an unprecedented dependence on flows of opinions and news of uncertain origin. But we have failed to establish any kind of feasible institution to regulate this information flow or a system for user responsibility. Neither is there any arrangement for verifying reports that are posted to the worldwide web.
More than a hundred years ago, when the first electronic media, radio and television, became available, public service broadcasting was evolved. The idea was to consolidate an information hierarchy. “Public” media, such as the BBC, were independent of advertising and financed by the public through license fees. They were also publicly controlled by surveillance boards. For better or worse, it worked for some time – naturally, and was based on media laws.
Today, regrettably, this system is ineffective. The main reason is that there are few borders in the e-world and regulation is very weak.
Internet and communications platforms have resulted in a totally new environment, where the number of media outlets is commensurate with world population. In a sense, anyone with internet access can communicate with an indefinite number of people as large as the world population. And we can’t rule out that our messages might be accessed by creatures from outer space. But this entire information and communications world is controlled by just a few people – owners and administrators of social media and telecommunications operators – who are subject to very little control. Although not suspecting them of evil intent, we must not forget that what we see today has arisen from the dangerous illusion that people are good by nature and are capable of self-regulation. The funny thing is that the super-wealthy owners of the Facebooks and Twitters are supporters of left-leaning ideas. Classics of Marxism wrote that the state would be redundant in the future because a perfect and enlightened people would contain the outbursts of and easily quiet the very few dissolute rogues. Regrettably, left without institutions and regulations and laws and systems, people can only beget something like Nazism or utter anarchy, which inevitably culminates in totalitarianism and violence.
Social media today is an unregulated crowd prone to chimerical visions, panic, hatred and bias. And crowds like this tend to grow. The lack of regulation in the new information and communications environment, or e-World 2.0, that exists within our normal World 1.0 with its democratic institutions, are factors that on one hand promote a very dangerous process whereby an increasing number of people are involved in World 2.0, and, on the other, leads to a situation where the everyday life of states, primarily democracies, is increasingly influenced by the internet.
Fake news, even if exposed, can influence real voting. Its volume, diversity and emotionality plunge voters into a world of endless instability, where they are unable to tell truth from lies. Of course, people did lie before, but the lies were comparatively stable: The Earth rests on four elephants, for example. This allowed people to get their bearings. Today, however, a fake story in the morning that one elephant is sick would be exposed by noon, but something new about the turtle on which the elephant is now lying rather than standing, would appear in the evening. But this “news,” too, is unreliable and unverifiable.
This breeds confusion and cognitive dissonance, which leads to slavish idol worship, the uncritical perception of reality and fragmentation of society into irreconcilable rival groups that are ready to destroy each other. Generally, this paves the way to Nazism or something similar.
So, there are two questions on the agenda.
First: How should we regulate the existing information and communications environment? In this context, everyone should realize that regulation can only be effective on the global scale. This means that a system of binding laws must be developed at the national and international levels. The first thing in this system is a solution to the responsibility problem as well as mechanisms for verification and maintenance of communications freedom. To put it simply, the Facebooks, Twitters and Telegrams need to obey laws.
The second question is on the behavior of individuals on the internet. To some extent, the rules in the e-world need to be brought together with the rules in the real world. I often think it is necessary to introduce the notion of internet citizenship while eliminating the anonymous nature of the internet environment. Just as people are responsible for their actions in familiar world 1.0, so should they be responsible in e-world 2.0. Multiplied gossip that is rife on the internet must entail the same consequences as malicious gossip and slander in traditional society. Patently false messages should be punishable regardless of the environment in which they are spread.
Also, why not consider recreating a version of public service broadcasting in the internet environment? This would certainly involve new multimedia platforms and a new class of public and transparent aggregators.
This could be regarded as a utopia, and it is utopias that have given rise to the modern and rather comfortable world of today.
In conclusion, let me quote a popular Soviet joke. A man asks a newsvendor: Do you have Pravda (Truth)? No more Pravda. What about Izvestia (News)? Don’t expect any Izvestia. There’s just Trud (Labor) left for three kopeks. In the Soviet Union, this joke was a sad reminder of a stern reality. Today, however, it can be seen as a prediction of what will be left if today’s information and communications deluge is not tamed.