The internet allows us to engage with ideas and people on a wider scale than ever before, but despite all of the wonderful benefits it provides us, it is deeply flawed — and dangerous.
Misinformation (false or misleading information spread regardless of intent to mislead) and disinformation (false or misleading information deliberately spread to influence public opinion) have always been issues in media, but in modern times, are more pervasive than ever.
Truth is great and will prevail if left to herself, that she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict, unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate; errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them.Thomas Jefferson
Online social behaviors and business models fuel bias, misinformation and manipulation – and distrust, depression and division that can destroy families, relationships and sometimes even lead to violence. The internet’s current operating model conflicts with societal wellbeing. We are working to fix it.
To address the problem, the first instinct is often to swing hard in one direction— either toward appointing a hands-on authority to shepherd the internet toward the presumed safest direction, or completely removing any authority or rules so that open competition determines the best way forward.
These are the two predominant solutions offered to mitigate the issue of misinformation in digital media. But apart from the two extremes, there is a third option to address misinformation: a balanced system in-between that elevates all of us.
Approaches to Combat Misinformation
Let’s take a look at these one by one.
Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past. — George Orwell
When misinformation is rampant in times of crisis (a war, a pandemic, etc.), some are inclined to give power to a central force to determine what is true and what is false. Typically, this manifests in a “trusted” group such as a single media outlet or a government-controlled institution that determines the accepted truths of the society, while working to censor and erase information that contradicts or challenges the established truths.
In this model, a centralized, trusted group, trained with the skills needed to make accurate determinations, could thoughtfully define or clarify information for the rest of society. In times of crisis when there is increased demand for accurate information, and an increased opportunity for bad actors to spread misinformation, some understandably seek the guidance and ease of this model to cut though the noise and deliver unquestioned verdicts.
But history shows that the ministry of truth model often has the opposite effect.
Centralizations of power, especially as they grow more extreme, routinely lead to corruption and internal decay. Highly centralized governments do not face enough internal friction or effective external input to maintain the institution’s sharpness. An over-reliance on loyalty to the people inside the institution and separation from the people it is supposed to serve leads to growing incompetence or worse.
Those outside the institution, the consumers of the proclaimed truths, are also taught to not think independently, as thinking independently could challenge the institution. Over time, the people lose agency, feeling less in control of themselves and their surroundings. The pressure to adhere to the established "truths" crushes individualism and diminishes critical thinking, leading to a population of nihilist, fatalist, even psychologically depressed subjects.
The public often rebels against this. Particularly in democratic societies where independent thought is part of the culture, citizens will rebel, sometimes violently, against attempts by a central authority to control information and “the truth.” Censoring alternative perspectives and open debate then has the exact opposite effect than intended, driving people to believe the exact opposite of whatever the authority says.
A ministry of truth produces citizens that are either uninterested in truth (as the independent pursuit of it threatens the citizens’ standing in society), or openly rebellious against the authority. They can even lose faith in information across the board, instead following public opinion, whims, or other non-reliable and changing guides. Or, sometimes a combination of all three is produced.
The political left typically holds greater trust in government and belief in the efficiency of centralized, public institutions. Left-leaning individuals are also more likely to turn to a single or group of “mainstream” media sources that align with their perspectives.
In summary, a “ministry of truth” can lead people to:
- Cease to question the ministry at their own peril, as the ministry becomes less reliable and even manipulates the “truth” to the benefit of the internal power brokers, often to the detriment of the good of individuals and society overall. Individuals also lose agency and skills to lead their own lives productively and effectively.
- Reject anything from the ministry, even when the ministry does support good and helpful information. This can lead to people believing more strongly in things that simply aren't true and are detrimental to their own best interest.
- Lose faith in information across the board, following public opinion, pop culture, whims, whatever feels right at the moment, or other non-reliable and changing guides. Such random decision making leads to bad decisions that negatively impact all of us.
The Internet is the first thing that humanity has built that humanity doesn't understand, the largest experiment in anarchy that we have ever had. — Eric Schmidt
The second choice to handle misinformation is the polar opposite of the ministry of truth — it's an information free-for-all, or anarchy, where the reins are let loose, and the burden falls on the individual to determine right from wrong, fact from opinion, and malice from altruism.
The idea is that an open, competitive forum of ideas leads to the elevation of the best choices and the proliferation of the most reliable information and sources. The free-for-all is said to provide individuals with the agency and responsibility to discern truth, accuracy, and best course of action for themselves. It is the best approximation of the concept Thomas Jefferson expressed above.
In this model, an empowered public, able to make their own determinations, could clarify information in the public marketplace of ideas. In times of increased demand for reliable information and increased opportunity for bad actors to spread misinformation, some seek the freedom of this model to avoid views that are biased toward those in power.
In the early days of the Internet, the ideal of an open and effective information flow was at least partially met. Supporters of open source and open standards fought against potential monopolistic control by Microsoft and Sun Microsystems and successfully kept the government mostly out of it. To a great extent they won, at least for a period of time, in delivering an open internet.
Anarchy can be good while it’s ripe, but it often rots. Different kinds of power, such as expertise (the technology elite), celebrity (in media, entertainment, politics) and capital (raw wealth and business models that create more wealth) can take over and pervert the system for their own benefit.
One look at the current state of Silicon Valley will reveal how idealism can crumble at the altar of one of these competing powers: capital. Some key tech players, to their credit and initially to the public benefit, rose to heights far beyond their competition. But today, if a burgeoning tech company wishes to succeed, it seemingly needs the favor of the Big Tech companies that dominate the major platforms, or else the young company is vulnerable to be pushed to the fringes of the internet, where consumers are scarce and funding is scarcer.
Is this still a free-for-all, a free flow of information?
The lack of structure in this model historically leads to a similar outcome as the ministry of truth. From the first crop of institutions to emerge, a handful will rise above the competition and seize control of the landscape, limiting the free flow of information and preventing any competition from arising.
So while anarchy can produce an initial crop of empowered citizens, the success of those initial citizens can lead them to do away with the system and replace it with their own brand of tyranny.
The current state of the internet can be seen as a shallow facade of freedom disguising a highly rigid and regulated structure. Tech platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Google now have complete control over the content and information spread on their platforms, and they are becoming increasingly emboldened to exercise that power.
The governing factors that determine what messages are amplified on the current internet are not validity, accuracy, or insight. The impact on society as a whole is an afterthought. Instead, economic incentives drive companies to prioritize incendiary, emotion-driven, and sometimes harmful content. The technology corporations controlling the dominant platforms have learned what content keeps people engaged, and while they are within their rights to moderate content on their platform, the people’s freedom to seek information free from predatory agents is not protected.
The absence of rules or structure does not directly equate to more freedom. In a society without laws against drunk driving, the drunken driver has the freedom to drive drunk, but other drivers have had their freedom to drive without fear of death taken from them.
The "free for all" model of addressing misinformation is — at least today — typically supported more by the political right, which tends to hold less trust in government and higher belief in the wisdom and productivity of individuals, private institutions and decentralized power structures. They are also more likely to avoid a single or group of “mainstream” media sources which they feel align more with the establishment than with their own perspectives.
So if the ministry of truth cannot maintain sufficient trust, and anarchy cannot maintain sufficient competition, what’s the good option?
Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time. — Winston Churchill
The way to combat misinformation is not to silence dissent, but to enable healthy, complete and respectful examination and discussion across differences.
The systems moderating the flow of information on the internet should not be primarily concerned with the content, but should instead aim to provide a balance that allows a diversity of ideas, people, information, dissent, contradiction, and discussion to be easily seen, evaluated, and understood by all.
Researchers on vaccine hesitancy at Duke University reinforce this point. They say the best way to reduce vaccine hesitancy is through “effective, respectful communication and trust-building.” Silencing critics serves only to affirm their validity, and actually makes the critics more confident they are right. Efforts to combat vaccine hesitancy by not openly and respectfully discussing people’s concerns lead to fewer people getting a vaccine.
Will false or misleading information flow in this balanced system? Sometimes yes, but it will be accompanied with the facts, arguments and perspectives that reveal what is right and wrong about it. And in doing so, it is the most effective and broadly scalable means we have of combating misinformation and manipulation.
The most popular misinformation is a mix of truth and falsehoods. A ministry of truth would at best “throw the baby out with the bath water” by censoring the verified facts or legitimate concerns that underlie alternative perspectives. Even worse, the ministry of truth can falsely claim something to be true when it is not. In a free-for-all, whatever group or institution that has wrestled control over your information flow would tell you what to think and even manipulate you into believing with great confidence that you have complete knowledge and are absolutely right and even came to the decision yourself, while others are wrong and probably evil.
What about false equivalency? In an argument with one-sided zealots, they will take or create any argument they can to support their conclusion. False equivalencies in that case makes no difference, other than frustrating the heck out of the other side, since their minds are already made up and unshakable.
Ordinary people, when allowed to objectively, calmly and respectfully look at the whole picture, can spot false equivalencies and make good decisions. The ideas and research behind crowd wisdom supports this, showing how a mixture of experts and novices on average do a much better job at getting to the correct answer than a group of pure experts (who can often be one-sided and overconfident).
It is not that a balanced, democratic system does not have shortcomings or challenges, it is just the “least bad” system available. And is much, much better than what we are experiencing today.
But what if those ideas are extreme and dangerous?
First, don’t be fooled into thinking that terrible ideas are not already out there. Even some of the most deplorable ideas seem to be making a comeback in a rebellion against the increasingly powerful ministries of truth and in the fragmented, uncontrollable anarchy of today’s internet.
Second, in practice, systems like we have at AllSides naturally work within the Overton window. Only ideas and perspectives that are in the current zeitgeist come into play. That naturally avoids the most dangerous and hateful fringes.
But still, extreme and dangerous ideas can come through. They come through all systems.
They come with ministries of truth, since those systems are limited at best, encourage rebellion that further spreads those falsehoods, and too often even intentionally proliferate those ideas. Examples include the Holocaust, conspiracy theories spread in the Arab world and the reported suppression and genocide of roughly 12 million Uyghurs, mostly Muslim, by the People’s Republic of China and the ruling Chinese Communist Party, to name just a few. As for free-for-alls, there are countless reports, often by groups who want to be a ministry of truth in the government or established news media, detailing examples of fringe or hate-mongering information that is posted and spread on social media and elsewhere.
A balanced system that enables people to identify which of these fringe ideas are false, misleading or dangerous is the best (or least bad) system for minimizing the damage and risks inherent in those ideas.
Argument, disagreement, and concession are fundamental components of a healthy democracy. While the original ideals behind the internet embraced these components, too much of the current internet is not designed to challenge ideas but affirm them. People using the internet as a means to seek information are treated like sheep, herded into familiar pastures to dwell with only those aligned with their viewpoints.
When given the tools to engage with a balanced array of perspectives and thoughts, people are able to determine truth and make better decisions.
The people must be trusted to determine the truth. They must be given the tools to seek it. At AllSides— with your help— we are determined to provide people with the tools they need to determine what is true, make good decisions, and together build a stronger democratic society and a better world.