Mark Zuckerberg, meet Jean-Jacques Rousseau?
In his dialogue, Phaedrus, the Greek philosopher Plato’s King Thamus argued that rather than aiding human memory, the Egyptian god Theuth’s gift of writing offered only the appearance of wisdom; 2,400 years later, Plato’s debate has resurfaced to blame Google and Facebook for our current misfortunes. The struggle to understand the effects of digitization on the news media, politics, commerce, and the very concept of truth itself remains in its infancy, so far without an heir to Plato.
For centuries, it was the role of the press, the so-called Fourth Estate, to speak truth to power and hold the powerful accountable. The internet has changed that, and the costs of this information free-for-all become more evident every day — malignant conspiracy theories; foreign efforts to influence democratic elections; emboldened political, racial, religious, and ethnic extremism, literally ad nauseam. “Disinformation is infecting our democratic discourse at rates that threaten the long-term health of our democracy,” concluded the study conducted in October 2020 by the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF).
If the Enlightenment questioned the legitimacy of the church as the gatekeeper of truth, today the very notion of truth is being questioned, and too often we have succumbed to the notion that it is malleable. That has led, among other things, to the claim by Kellyanne Conway that there are “alternative facts” and to Donald Trump’s complaints of “fake news.”
Digital technology has played a critical role in the demise of traditional news media. Tight budgets and a 24/7 news cycle have meant lower quality journalism — superficial analysis, unverified sources, and inaccurate information. Technology also has put a premium on shorter, simpler, and more sensational reports — despite the fact that issues such as climate change, technology, and global health are growing more complex. As news organizations compete for attention and advertisers in a marketplace filled with carnival barkers, many have turned to pandering and generating self-anointed “scoops” whose value too often can be measured by the teaspoon. In short, we are witnessing a shift from providing quality journalism considered to be in the public interest to what the public is interested in, making news another commodity in the entertainment market.
Yellow journalism, propaganda, partisanship, rumor-mongering, and sloppy reporting are nothing new, and media quality and the public perception of it were in decline long before the digital revolution. In her book “Slanted: How the News Media Taught Us to Love Censorship,” Sharyl Attkisson describes how over the last two decades public relations (PR) professionals have mounted an increasingly sophisticated campaign to promote the interests of businesses, interest groups, and politicians, often by exaggerating some truths, ignoring others, and repeating outright lies.
Political demonization has become the norm, and that has led to increased polarization in society.
Rather than limiting the damage, however, new technology and its economics have compounded it. Social media, search engines, and algorithms have offered the spinners a tool with an unprecedented ability to deceive and a cultural context in which Jewish space lasers ignite forest fires and truth itself is up for grabs.
The Edelman Trust Barometer reports that the “general population’s trust in four key institutions — business, government, NGOs, and media — has declined broadly” around the globe, with the U.S. suffering the most. This is a warning about where a market-driven democracy built on ignorance, ambition, and greed could take us. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche described how democracy could lead to an “abyss.” We are at the brink.
Many in the media and the political establishment have lost touch with too much of the citizenry. How they can re-establish the relationship is the key challenge of our time.
There is no obvious market solution to curbing online malefactors, nor is there great promise in the kinds of legislative and regulatory actions that busted trusts more than a century ago. The problem is compounded by the fact that the issue now is multinational and has spurred conflicting efforts to protect consumers’ privacy, among other things.
In this vacuum, the answer may be separating content from economic influences to address the fundamental issue of rebuilding trust that so far has been absent from the debate.
In the end, though, in preserving, protecting, and defending liberal democracy against the challenges that a market-based economy, new technologies, economic realities, and globalization present, it might be time for Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey, and Larry Page to hold some virtual meetings with Jean Baudrillard, Jean-François Lyotard, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau on devising a social contract for the Information Age.
John Walcott is a member of the Global TechnoPolitics Forum advisory board and an adjunct professor in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. He has reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and other outlets on or from more than 80 countries during a career that has spanned more than four decades. He is played by Rob Reiner in “Shock and Awe,” a film about the team of journalists who challenged the Bush administration’s case for invading Iraq.
Gregory F. Treverton is co-founder and chairman at the global TechnoPolitics Forum. He stepped down as chairman of the National Intelligence Council in January 2017. He is a senior adviser with the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and a professor of the practice of international relations and spatial sciences at the University of Southern California.
Pari Esfandiari is the co-founder and president at the global TechnoPolitics Forum. She is a member of the at-large advisory committee (ALAC) at ICANN and serves as nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s GeoTech Center. She is a serial entrepreneur, internet pioneer, and an avid environmentalist.
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