The Internet, which was to be the platform that permanently housed the annals of human knowledge and promote its dissemination, became the cemetery of intelligence.
For centuries, access to knowledge has been the main determiner of power and wealth. Today, each of us has access to every library in the world at the tips of our fingers. Yet, we are not in control of this knowledge; on the contrary, it is easier to manipulate us than ever before, and, worse still, many actually want to be manipulated.
In this era when traditional sources of information are fading way due to uneven competition, the old need of being well informed appears again. In the end, access to accurate information is still a determinant of power and wealth, and this in turn requires the return of paid professional media, funded by the consumers as leaving backing in other hands guarantees that we will learn not only what is true but what serves the interests of the publication’s sponsors.
The awareness of this fact has reached everyday patrons who are getting used to paying for content – which until quite recently was a rather eccentric behaviour. For protection against fake news in this post-truth era, the cost of trustworthy news is rather negligible.
Origins of information warfare
Before the invention of the printing press, every piece of knowledge was protected because it often constituted one group’s superiority over another hence the secrets of making porcelain or silk were kept for centuries – or the secret behind Coca Cola’s formula today.
However, printing showed that it is much more profitable to share knowledge than to hide it from everyone. Modern universities are based on the concept of publishing research so that the knowledge of humanity will grow as fast as possible.
Still, the restrictions on paper were enormous. The cost of printing was prohibitive for many authors, and even if something appeared in print, it could have been lost in library resources for decades. Finding the right information outside the mainstream was very difficult. Many scholars were unable to break through with their revelations and were often rediscovered many decades after their death.
False hope for the digital era
The Internet was supposed to solve this problem. (Self-)Publication became virtually free while the searching for content also became immediate. It was no longer necessary to charge for content or fundraise for printing, and no more thousands of hours spent in libraries! What could go wrong? It turns out, everything.
Many of us didn’t realise that the cost of printing was a barrier filtering out a flood of graphomania and stupidity. Of course, the occasional genius or masterpiece were sometimes unfortunately stopped at these sieves. In return, however, you could generally trust what you read. Even publishing houses, universities and editorial offices watched over the information spheres, even if imperfectly.
After the digital revolution, these same filters seemed to be unnecessary. The content they produced was quickly replicated in the network and available for free. Great news for consumers of information – at least in the beginning. No fees, however, translated into a lack of funds, which in turn caused a decrease in the quality of the content – even in recognised periodicals. And so began the race to the informational bottom.
The hidden price-tag
The (near) zero cost of publication entailed that a lot of rubbish appeared on the Internet. If 50 years ago we thought that the moon was made of cheese, we would have been considered harmless village freaks. Today, we can easily find at least 50 similar theories, and we can set up the Cheese Moon Association and begin producing materials proving the logic of our hypothesis and recruiting new members.
And so, we have the proliferation of Internet groups for flat-Earthers (people who believe that the Earth is flat which had at least one follower who was ready to launch themselves up in a homemade rocket to prove the idea – succeeding only in breaking both his legs in the process), chimneys (people who believe that any disease can be cured with intravenous infusions of vitamin C – necessarily left-handed and necessarily bought from Jerzy Zięba) and, perhaps most notably, the anti-vaccination movement.
In order to prove a hypothesis (rather than test it), we can get any answer from the Internet that already conforms to our way of thinking – which is irrelevant from a practical point of view. Even worse, when parents, for example, want to find out whether vaccinations can trigger autism they will find a flood of contradictory opinions, and many will decide to choose a “safer” option and not immunize – exposing their children to mortal danger.
This problem is widening in every developed country – especially those where the latest epidemics had mostly disappeared, but where we are now seeing a re-emergence. In the Czech Republic, the army is supposed to help in the management of the latest measles epidemic.
History repeats itself
So, have we gone full circle? Is it as difficult to get an answer today as it used to be – then because of problems with access to information – today because of the mixing of valuable information with garbage? Unfortunately, it is much worse now.
Our psychological mechanisms lead us to set up our own private filters for all the information that reaches us. We accept the more credible we evaluate and those that confirm our view of reality while rejecting those that contradict it. The fall of independent media means that there are no longer any authorities that challenge or correct our viewpoints – which many quietly celebrate with a sigh of relief since it is not always a pleasant process.
The influence of echo chambers
The result is that we quickly become surrounded by people and information confirming our worldview, ignoring the rest. For this reason, there’s a part of Polish society that believes the country is collapsing and another that it has just risen from its knees. An agreement seems to be impossible for the simple reason that nobody wants one.
Today, it is much easier to ignore a different point of view than to argue with it. More importantly, the sins of your side are easier to relativise. Daniel Effron’s research shows that it is easier for us to accept the lies of “our” side when we focus on showing that they could be true. This strategy can be exemplified by President Trump; even though he has told at least 2,400 lies during his first 400 days of office, his support among his conservative, Republican base is currently over 88%. Likewise, in Poland, many believe what they hear on TVP Info, despite the fact that even leading PiS politicians (whom the station overtly supports) stated that its message “can offend intelligent people”.
In this situation, the job of the few, poorly-paid fact-checkers to assess the accuracy of disseminated information is like going through a dump in search of a few scattered pearls. Pearls that no one is waiting for as everyone is looking for trinkets emblematic of their “side”. This is also the reason why traditional content providers are dying. By delivering expensive and refined information, they lose due to the much higher cost of production of valuable content. Their main advantage – reliability – becomes pointless.
Our tarnished digital world
This is a sad portrayal, but the reality is worse. As it happens, these online ecosystems are very easy to manipulate. The Internet can give us insight into ourselves. We do not need to disclose personal details about our places of residence or levels of education as what we read about and what we are discussing says much more about us.
And if we get involved in the Cheese Moon conspiracy, we know that we’ll think warmer about every fan of cheddar, and if we’re scared of vaccines, we’ll vote for whomever is stoking our fears. Every bubble can therefore be managed and used to trigger predictable reactions.
The Cambridge Analytica affair shows how simple it is to convince many people to vote for even the most preposterous candidates. There are numerous indications that it contributed to the choice of a not-very-honest-businessman-and-celebrity for the US president as well as a third-rate politician (one lacking any notable achievements) for the President of Poland.
The question is what other irrationalities is the Internet convincing us every day? If it’s just consumerism, that’s a foreseeable outcome of capitalism; it could be much worse when it’s hatred, xenophobia or warmongering. The armies of online trolls in the East are not idle, and their goal is certainly not to increase the consumption of kvass.
This is especially the case when such manipulations come from successful technological advances. The desire to see the sexual exploits of celebrities has led to the creation of programs where one person’s face can easily and realistically be imposed on a movie where another person is performing. In this way, it could be possible for President Trump to finally meet President Duda – at least for the needs of government propaganda. If these misleading campaigns are well organised, when the viewer watches such a movie, he begins to remember that he has heard about such an event before and it becomes an “acceptable fact”.
The way ahead
It seems that access to reliable information is becoming a key issue. The new elite will not be celebrities or businessmen, but people capable of expressing their views honestly even if it clashes with another’s “reality” and thus acquiring a more accurate view of the world.
Those in this select circle will have to submit to the unpleasant procedure of paying for the work of journalists and fact-checkers who need to find information, check and process it. May the ambition of belonging to this new elite class be massive and let us rebuild the power of independent media as it is a pillar of democracy – a deeply weakened pillar, but hopefully one which can be refortified.
The article is part of the #DemocraCE project first published in Polish by Polityka in cooperation with Visegrad/Insight. First published in Polityka https://www.polityka.pl/tygodnikpolityka/swiat/1748514,1,jak-nie-poddac-sie-manipulacji-w-internecie.read
Tomasz Kasprowicz is an expert in the field of economy, a commentator and journalist. He is also Vice President of the Res Publica Foundation.