It has been nearly a generation since Kofi Annan made his famous speech drawn from Francis Bacon’s timeless quote, that “Knowledge is power. Information is liberating. Education is the premise of progress, in every society, in every family.”
And it’s been only two years since the ice-bucket challenge, but one would think it’s been a generation. We live in a world today with more access to information than ever before, where the definition of “knowledge” is not what you know but how soon you know it – and how quickly you can share it. Some call it an era of post-truth, or simply an era of half-truths, even lies. But it is indisputable that there continues to be a proliferation of false information that belies the reality of our societies ability to adapt to new technology. Rather now more than ever before, we are stuck wondering whether we can truly find verifiable information, credible thought and real thoughtful journalism.
Nowhere does this take place more prevalently than on the internet, and social media. There are endless streams of uncurated data that are easily pushed into the public, that show the impact of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and others that are sources of continuous hoaxes, scams and fake news. You don’t have to only focus on the high profile cases that we hear about daily that are the source of continuous 24 hour news cycles. It is the small examples that demonstrate the overwhelming influence this has had on the generation that has grown up with it, presenting a serious challenge that we as a society are all faced with. Disturbing events prevail like a conflicting story that pops up the day after a mass shooting at a school, challenging the legitimacy of young people shattered by the events, or a planted news report raising doubts about the legitimacy of new drugs being used to save lives. These are tragic examples of what has become the new norm in our post-journalistic world.
Recent developments around the Cambridge Analytica scandal and Zuckerberg’s testimony to Congress are clearly a watershed moment and the beginning of serious questioning of what we are faced with. I question whether we as a community of informed and knowledgeable members of our society have a moral responsibility to assure transparency and truth as we watch others shape people’s perspectives. We must clearly call out the clear and pervasive manipulation of users thoughts and ideas. We cannot stand by and watch the dismantling at network speed of significant cultural and social ideals. And it’s not just a U.S. problem. The damage it is doing in other countries is also starting to attract increased attention and the amplification of recent social unrest and genocide in countries such as Burma and Sri Lanka, among others, has caused the UN to directly accuse Facebook of being an accessory in stirring up violence and hatred and fueling online echo chambers.
A NY Times article a few weeks ago reports that “particularly in countries where institutions are weak or undeveloped, Facebook’s newsfeed can inadvertently amplify dangerous tendencies. Designed to maximize user time on the site, it promotes whatever wins the most attention. Posts that tap into negative, primal emotions like anger or fear, studies have found, produce the highest engagement, and so proliferate.”
In addition, Facebook is accused of introducing extremists to one another through its “suggested friends” feature. Since algorithms connect users of like interests, the platform has been inadvertently connecting terrorist networks to each other, aiding incitement and recruitment. The problem of terrorist literature being advertised on social media has been going on for years, but this development is clearly far more insidious. Without effective checks, numerous sites have been exploited for use by jihadists, and even more incredulously, Facebook accounts that were suspended for hate speech were apparently reinstated after their users complained.
In response to this, the European Union will be taking action May 25 to enact the General Data Protection Regulation, a new privacy law created to be sure users know and understand who the data companies are that are collecting information about them and consent to sharing it. The law requires companies to be transparent and give a reason for the information they are compiling. Individuals will also have the right to access all their personal data, control its use, and delete it if desired.
The U.S. regulatory climate in disarray by weakened political parties does not appear to be prepared as of yet for the necessary restrictions that should be placed on social media, but it is clear that strong decisions need to be made to counteract this unintended frightening consequence of technology and that Facebook should be held accountable. There are already many pending lawsuits against the company seeking compensation for serious breaches of data privacy in addition to allowing terrorism to spread and recruit on its platform.
Additionally, further information on a knowledge database of millennials offers disturbing insight when it comes to critical gaps in knowledge, and the prevalence of powerfully held, yet ignorantly inspired, opinions on complex issues. According to a recent poll by the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation (VOCMF), one-third of millennials believe that more people were killed under President George W. Bush than Josef Stalin.
In light of the critical gap in knowledge on these and likeminded cornerstones of world history, it is unsurprising, yet perhaps all the more worrisome, that the same social-media affected generation has the most positive views of communism than any other generation polled by an impressive margin. There is great irony in this, considering 40% of them have never heard of Lenin.
Yet another troubling example is highlighted by a recent survey commissioned by The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, which found that two-thirds of millennial participants could not identify Auschwitz, and 41 % of the same generation surveyed believe that substantially less than 6 million Jews perished in the Holocaust.
These issues and challenges are overwhelming, widespread and chaotic. There is no easy answer or quick fix, as we are pushed beyond our limit by thought leaders, influencers and heads of state who have bought into this dynamic and continue to perpetuate its insidious growth, feeding the polarization in our societies.
As a long time influencer and activist in art, culture, and politics, I have been recently reflecting on other times in our history when we had a preponderance of misinformation, fear and social distrust. The McCarthy era in the late 1950’s was such a time and it left many lives in disarray, causing deep divisions in our communities. Despite these deeply troubling circumstances, we eventually overcame it and survived, and the result was a decade that followed that saw significant developments in social awareness, exploration of art, science and human consciousness.
Despite the uphill battle to counteract and find constructive responses and solutions to these destructive elements in this very challenging time, there is still hope that the voices of reason can and will prevail and that there will be a path forward towards accountability and responsibility. Such a path could lead the way to an essential turning point for a new generation to find balance in the midst of chaos and to continue to harness the positive and constructive benefits of the incredible acceleration of technology.