Disinformation in the digital age

As Canada’s expert advisory group on online safety prepares to take the “next step in developing legislation to address harmful online content”, former US President Obama delivered an address at Stanford University that is relevant for those deliberations.

Obama was the keynote speaker at a symposium on April 21, “Challenges to Democracy in the Digital Information Realm”.

Among highlights in the 1-hour address, the former president referred to a weakening of democratic institutions around the world, attributed to “the profound change that’s taken place in how we communicate and consume information.”

For more and more of us, search and social media platforms aren’t just our window into the internet. They serve as our primary source of news and information. No one tells us that the window is blurry, subject to unseen distortions, and subtle manipulations. All we see is a constant feed of content where useful, factual information, and happy diversions (and cat videos) flow alongside lies, conspiracy theories, junk science, quackery, white supremacist racist cracks, misogynist screeds. Over time, we lose our capacity to distinguish between fact, opinion, and wholesale fiction. Or maybe we just stop caring.

“Like all advances in technology, this progress has had unintended consequences… in this case, we see that our new information ecosystem is turbo-charging some of humanity’s worst impulses.”

Obama said tech platforms need to accept their “unique role” in how information is consumed, referencing business models that, by design, encourage inflammatory and polarizing content to increase engagement. He said “the veil of anonymity that platforms provide their users” contribute to difficulties in determining the quality of information being consumed.

His speech also touched on the decline of traditional sources of information that maintain “the highest standards of journalistic integrity,” talking about more and more ad revenue [flowing] to the platforms that disseminate the news, rather than that money going to the newsrooms that report it”.

Obama endorsed the Platform Accountability and Transparency Act, that would require social media companies to share certain data and permit vetting by independent researchers.

He supports reforms Section 230 of the Communications Act, a law that shields platforms from legal liability for content posted on their sites.

According to Obama, “Do we allow our democracy to wither, or do we make it better? That is the choice.”

An opposing viewpoint can be found in a post by Dr. Mark Jamison, director of the Public Utility Research Center at University of Florida’s Warrington College of Business. “The answer to bad information isn’t a greater information gatekeeper role for government, but more voices.”

“Obama is wrong that government regulation of what people see would promote democracy or, more specifically, promote freedom. Such controls have done the opposite throughout history and would this time, too.”

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