Do you feel disoriented by the world today? Powerless? Unsure who to trust? The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard would empathise. Life must be lived forwards but can only be understood backwards, he wrote – and that was before the internet came along and completely hobbled us in this maddening game of mental catch-up.
In journalism, the sense of unmooring is palpable. Media outlets once provided the “first rough draft of history”. But what is their role today when anyone can publish their own “rough draft” instantly on their phones?
Last week a group of academics from across Europe gathered online to consider this very question, as well as broader issues surrounding the power of social media. The conference, Trust in Expertise in a Changing Media Landscape, was organised by the EU funded Peritia, Policy, Expertise and Trust in Action, a €3 million project led by researchers at University College Dublin.
Neatly summarising the challenge faced by journalists, Belgian philosopher Simon Truwant identified three trends in modern newsgathering. First, press outlets have lost their role as gatekeepers and are increasingly reduced to providing "context or background information to what is already the news"– be that "news" a presidential tweet or a controversial image shared on WhatsApp.
Second, social media has transformed news into a process of constant revision in which traditional media itself becomes part of the story, depending on its perceived bias, as rival social media users attempt to get official endorsement for their version of reality. Third, the declining influence of traditional media generates a false impression of democratised opinion as the role of gatekeeper “is taken up by automatic algorithms”.
Truwant’s main concern is not the survival of beloved institutions such as The Irish Times (more’s the pity – Ed). He is more interested in how media trends are altering human understanding of truth. Each new posting on social media “strikes us as first hand information”, as though “the facts speak for themselves; this is a false assumption”.
Under the now dominant model of rolling news, “both the media and its consumers increasingly but also mistakenly tend to treat each new piece of information as though it was qualitatively new and hence provides newsworthy facts”. By getting swallowed up in this process, traditional media is making itself less obviously worth preserving, Truwant suggests.
Detecting a degree of defeatism among journalists covering stories under the Trump administration, he says “at one point the journalist attitude seems to be that because you can no longer control the news then the best you can do is be a neutral medium that sheds light on all sides of the story, and then the audience should decide. The problem with this conception of neutrality is, of course, it no longer distinguishes between informed and uninformed viewpoints, between facts and opinions, or between facts and framing.”
The upheaval in information distribution goes far beyond traditional media, however. Science now finds itself in a whack-a-mole situation, battling an endless succession of conspiracy theories online. As for politics, it has surrendered the impetus to a platform where complex policy positions must be conveyed in 280 characters.
But what has this all got to do with trust? The project takes its conceptual lead from philosopher Onora O'Neill, who stresses the need for trustworthiness in society rather than trust itself. (Her definition of trustworthy is a blend of honesty, reliability and competence.) The problem today is not too little trust but too much, O'Neill and other Peritia researchers say. They are thinking in particular of corporations such as Facebook, whose 2.1 billion monthly active users make it equal – as one participant noted – to 1.6 Chinas or 6.5 United States of Americas.
Blind trust in social media platforms is evident from extensive research, according to Michael Latzer, a professor of communications at the University of Zurich, and one of the keynote speakers at the conference. A survey in Switzerland found 60 per cent of people saying we have to accept there is no privacy on the internet, with half saying we have to accept being permanently monitored online. People are resigned to surrendering autonomy, clicking "consent" to unlimited surveillance out of a sense of powerlessness, the study indicates.
It's not realistic to get to a situation where everyone understands what is going on behind the scenes
Algorithmic selection – the kind of thing behind Amazon recommendations and Google search prediction – is a "fantastic innovation", Latzer continues, but it has also created a new and unaccountable type of expert: a piece of code that may not even be understood by its programmers.
Given the complexity of algorithms, “it’s not realistic to get to a situation where everyone understands what is going on behind the scenes,” Latzer says. Thus, “I think there is a necessity for this faith in technology and that we trust ourselves more or less to this technology. There is no way around that.”
He suggests we are on the brink of a counter-Enlightenment, or at least “a new social order”, and the choice for individuals appears stark: either accept blind faith in the algorithms or cut yourself off from modernity.
A middle ground may be possible, Latzer says, where users trust wisely rather than blindly. To cultivate this ability, “media literacy is a good avenue”. One measure that could help is learning how to search for reliable sources (“Even at university level this is a big challenge”). Another is becoming more aware of just how influential the tech giants have become.
European competition law stops traditional media from joining forces to act as a counterbalance
Natali Helberger, a professor of information law at the University of Amsterdam, points out that the EU's main weapon for taming online platforms – the proposed Digital Services Act – affirms the power of platforms to set their own rules and leaves the job of policing, fact-checking and flagging transgressions to users who may or may not wish to do this on a voluntary basis.
To the extent that governments even acknowledge the hegemony of social media companies, their answer is light-touch regulation. “I sometimes wonder: How much negotiating power do we actually have?” Helberger says. “These are companies that have more voters” – by several multiples – “than the European Union. So maybe they are too big to regulate.”
Beyond any legal framework, she says, “we need to invest in creating the conditions for counter-power”. Publicly funded platforms is one idea; but ironically, she points out, European competition law stops traditional media from joining forces to act as a counterbalance. Public service broadcasters face cuts internationally but “they are our frontline defence against misinformation”.
All in all, the expert gathering paints a grim picture of our current predicament. But there is logic to such pessimism. Trusting that everything will turn okay is part of the problem.
* A series of public lectures, [Un]Truths: Trust in an Age of Disinformation, is being held online on every second Tuesday from April to June as part of the Peritia project. It starts on April 6th at 4pm with Harvard University professor Naomi Oreskes on trust in science. Registration is free. https://peritia-trust.eu/peritia-lectures/
Philosophy in schools:
*A network of teachers and academics supporting the provision of philosophy in schools is hosting a half-day online workshop on Wednesday, March 31st. GADFLY: IE - The Irish Philosophy Teaching Event is aimed at existing and aspiring instructors in the subject. Tickets €10. For more details: www.philosophyshortcourse.com/gadflyie