Human society faces an uncertain future. No, I am not talking about climate change, but of a blizzard of ideas, true and false, that is now choking our senses and society, everywhere we turn. Specifically, human society; the tradition of people living in communities, coming together, working together, acting to secure the society and see it prosper, largely based on trust.

The other threat, climate change, might well be a more existential threat, changing the ecological dynamics of the earth to the point where human life itself is challenged.

In 1987, in the infancy of the email age, long before the World Wide Web and social media, US author, academic and media commentator, Neil Postman, wrote:

‘What [George] Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What [Aldous] Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much (information) that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.’

That ‘sea of irrelevance’ is rising, surfing on the waves of social media, and being lifted to new levels by  ‘generative pre-trained transformers’ (GPT), the machines at the heart of AI, artificial intelligence. 

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

The information challenge is complicated by the issues that are threaded through it. 

First, social media platforms want to maximise profits. That means maximising traffic and minimising money spent on checking content.  But social platforms all need a social licence to operate, a set of expectation and behaviours that the community has, and define the place of that service in the community. Thus, they must be sensitive to their users’ needs and expectations to prosper.

Secondly, governments of all political stripes, want to regulate society to achieve certain goals. Authoritarian government supports community interests to the extent those interests serve the ruling elite. Democratic governments, of which there are an astonishing variety, are expected to serve the interests of the people.

One of those interests in a democracy is the free flow of information, with some quality control, but not at the price of suppressing free speech, beyond that which serves some public interest like not provoking panic. It is a fine balance and regularly contested and is being contested at present with proposed Commonwealth legislation.

There are contending ideas about what amounts to truth. The last decade has seen the matter become very contested. ‘Fake news’ made an early appearance, shortly followed by ‘alternate facts’. Both were devices to discredit news or information that ran counter to the line the speaker was pushing. Rather than trying to disprove the claims, possibly beyond the ability of the speaker, it was so much easier to claim, without proof or argument, that the statements were false.

And there is a further distinction, that of misinformation and disinformation. The first is honestly held but incorrect beliefs, passed on without malice. The second, information that is known to be false but passed on with malicious or mischievous intent.

China and Russia have both weaponised social media. Their chat bots pour out torrents of disinformation aimed at western democracies, to sow doubt about others and to destabilise their communities.

In times of crisis, communities rally to strong leaders and seek simple answers to what are complex situations. The claims and counter claims made in social media during the early days of the pandemic are good examples. 

They were compiled, together with government, to suppress false claims for an article in a weekend newspaper recently. The article was alarmist about Canberra’s alleged suppression of free speech but the evidence seemed to point the other way.

Simple and alarmist claims like ‘Masks don’t work’ or ‘Vaccines don’t work’, may not deserve suppression, but they do find listeners who want simple answers. The complex answers require receptiveness and, sometimes, self discipline.

Masks do work. They have been used for infection control in operating theatres for more than a century, but a scarf over the mouth is next to useless. And the efficacy of a vaccine depends on many things especially the health of the person’s immune system. At very least, vaccines reduce the severity of a disease in a vaccinated sufferer.

Vaccines contributed to victory in the US War of Independence. George Washington insisted that members of the Continental Army be vaccinated against Small Pox, then the scourge of all armies, using techniques of (vaccine pioneer) Edward Jenners’ discoveries. 

Lock-downs, or quarantine as it used be called, work. Only in recent times has the Quarantine Station on Sydney’s North Head been closed. 

Control of a pandemic needs a suite of actions, no one alone is effective.

In this charged and contested field the Commonwealth government is seeking to introduce new laws aimed at a more truthful social media environment.

The government says . . .  ‘these proposed powers will bring greater transparency to efforts by digital platforms to respond to misinformation and disinformation on their services, while balancing freedom of expression which is at the heart of democracy.’

Under the new laws, the ‘platforms will continue to be responsible for the content they host and promote to users.’ Responsibility to administer the new laws goes to the Australian Communication and Media Authority (ACMA).  ‘If platforms fail to act to combat misinformation and disinformation over time, the ACMA would be able to draw on its reserve powers to register enforceable industry codes with significant penalties for non-compliance.’ But the government adds hastily that the ACMA would not have a role in determining what is true or false.

Opponents have immediately tarred the move as an attack on free speech. But it is further empowering the social media platforms to take more responsibility to for content, something that costs money. 

But both sides of politics can be taken down by fake news. This may be a small step to free and responsible speech . . . but it will still be a race between  . . . “he says, she says . . .” Be sceptical, judge carefully, believe sparingly.

Vincent O’Donnell

Media Researcher & Analyst

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