Opinion / The Disinformation Super Highway

December 7, 2016

I've been thinking about several "reforms" of the social networking and related Internet universe that are crucially necessary -- and in my view Democracy's only hope -- but are very unlikely to go

 anywhere. One aims at the mindless opposition to any form of editing or fact-checking in the world of new media. Until news is vetted, lies will always far outweigh truth. A second is to insist that all stories and commentary require real names, rather than cute pseudonyms.

 

It's worth recalling that both of these propositions were business-as-usual until the precipitous rise of social networking just a decade ago, and the equally precipitous demise of conventional media. False stories used to be subject to public retraction and often to legal action, and it was standard practice for media operations to maintain large editorial staffs and require documented evidence of reporters' assertions. Letters to the editor were only printed when accompanied by their authors' names and those of the communities where they resided.  If the topic was incendiary, the names were authenticated by phone calls from the editors. Anonymity is cowardice, pure and simple, and immensely destructive. It has transformed political and social discourse into a toxic dump, at no cost to the worst of the poison merchants.     

 

An enormous amount of the damage wrought by the Disinformation Super Highway could be neutralized if we only returned to some semblance of responsible news management. Indeed, it could make good on the Internet's lost promise as the instrument of a new golden age in genuine information.     

 

Of course the most important reform of all would be infinitely harder to realize. The practice of planting cookies -- extraordinarily efficient surveillance devices that assemble detailed user profiles from emails, consumer choices and networks of friends and acquaintances -- should be recognized for what it is: a gross and perilous abuse of privacy. Put bluntly, we're sold by the likes of Google AdSense to anyone who is willing pay for us. It was this commercial transaction, above all, that permitted the extreme right's lie-mongers to pinpoint a gullible (and/or deplorable) clientele and bombard it through every available portal with "news" mediated by no editors or fact-checkers. Fox News may have pioneered the strategy on television, an older medium; but the free-for-all Internet gave it vastly greater intensity and reach.  

 

Again, I don't think there's much chance that any of these initiatives will be widely discussed, much less develop a large constituency. The present chaos is of incalculable value to the fraudulent populists now taking power all over the western world. Worse yet, two generations of the Internet's children under age 45 or so believe that the unmediated and anonymous flow of data is their contribution to civilization, when to my mind at least, it is has evolved into the principal fuel of neo-barbarism. The death throes of Democracy disguised as its ultimate enhancement.   

 

Frank Viviano © 2016

 

Frank Viviano is a Sicilian-American journalist and foreign correspondent.

 

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