Real/Fake Digital Media: Time For Us All To Worry And For Technologists To Act

How It Was

Every time politicians (actors, musicians, journalists, friends and enemies) do something that people don’t like they light up the digital switchboard. This was not the case in the 20th century.

How It Was

Every time politicians (actors, musicians, journalists, friends and enemies) do something that people don’t like they light up the digital switchboard. This was not the case in the 20th century. When “mass media” emerged in the 1950s in the form of scheduled TV shows and syndicated news organizations, the US stood still: nearly half of the American population stopped what they were doing at 8Pm on Sunday nights to watch the Ed Sullivan show – after they read the Sunday newspaper (and after they went to church). Some years later, Americans scheduled time with Seinfeld, but after that, schedules disappeared altogether. No one under the age of 60 stops what they’re doing on Sunday night to watch “TV,” fewer and fewer of us read a physical newspaper and church attendance is way down. Information surrounds us, but isn’t always real, remotely accurate or even a best guess, which is frightening.

Decades ago we got our news from a few national networks that were “programmed” as mainstream. Cable media – radio and TV – changed the channel again. Now it’s a free-for-all. I can get information about anything, anytime from any “channel” I choose, and the younger I am the more likely I will find what I want from a digital channel. It’s important that even the New York Times has successfully converted from advertising-based print media to subscription-based digital media.

How It Is Now

The 2016 American presidential campaign illustrated the power of digital media. Trump used digital media – especially Twitter – to manipulate perception and bait the traditional and cable media into covering his campaign no matter what it was doing or saying. Who knows how much free coverage he generated. Some have the number at nearly $3B. Along the way, objective truth morphed into ratings and everyone feasted on the creation and consumption of so-called digital “facts” and even “alternative facts” no matter how accurate they may have been. It’s also important to note the role that WikiLeaks – which began its work in 2006 – played in the 2016 election. When was the last time anyone can remember hearing so much about servers, email or Twitter during a US Presidential election, or a Presidential candidate stating his “love” for information leakers or inviting a foreign power to hack a rival’s email? Yes, this is new.

The 2017 protests after President Trump’s election make the same point. Social media was used by women all over the world to “announce” their plans to protest and “invite” others to participate. Millions of women participated around the world, many at a moment’s notice. “Reach” is now incalculable, unpredictable and spontaneous. We have never seen anything like this, but just because it’s unprecedented doesn’t mean it’s an anomaly. It’s the new normal, and it’s permanent (unless we decide to repeal the 1st Amendment to the US Constitution, which we should never do). But how did any of these women know for sure if the invitations were real or fake? Or understand the motives of the hosts or even the invitees, for that matter? Maybe all of the news about meeting on malls throughout the world was fake? Who could tell? How does anyone know for sure?

Real versus fake invitations (and news) are indistinguishable because the arbitrators of truth are conflicted by the usual aphrodisiacs (money, power and ratings, among others). Put another way, how can for-profit media conglomerates behave like judges with no vested interests in the decisions they make when they have clear vested financial interests in how their communications platforms are used?

Digital channels are everywhere and always on. Anyone can publish a book, tweet, create a blog or “comment” from any social platform (or device) they choose. Everyone’s a reporter and an opinion journalist, though not everyone’s trained to practice these professions. Optimists believe the availability of these channels supports informed debates about life, science, religion and politics. Pessimists believe we have unleashed the greatest threat to democracy and reason the world has ever faced. Where are the realists?

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