We have access to more information, quicker, easier, more effectively and at the touch of a button than we have ever had, so why am I not talking about a golden age of information? I'm writing this on the morning that we discovered that Donald Trump has been elected to the White House, and only a few months after Britain committed its own act of national insanity by voting for Brexit. There are many more intelligent people than I am who will be talking about this, but I wanted to look at just one small aspect of both events, and indeed more generally in society from the viewpoint of someone who works with information, and information professionals.
I can go on for hours about how much information is now available to us via social media, but there are plenty of other sites that can go into that for you. However, the amount of data itself isn't the problem, it's what we do, or don't do with it. We don't discriminate. 'It's all on Google' is a cry that we hear all to often, and people seem to think that a search gives us good and accurate information. You and I know that isn't the case; in fact it can be exactly the opposite. However, the vast majority of people will simply look at some results on the first page, see a result that chimes with them, read and accept it. An Ofcom survey in 2015 found that only 60% of adults think that some websites will be accurate or unbiased and some won't be, 23% think that information returned by search engines is true and unbiased and 14% simply don't think about it. We are all too ready to simply accept what we see and read without thinking it through any further, and our own biases and preconceptions end up being reinforced by our own filter bubbles. Lots of reasons for this - we don't have time to check, we're lazy, or we simply want to accept what we read is accurate and doesn't challenge our own world views.
A second problem is that of fake news. There are dozens of websites that claim to provide us with news, but in actual fact, all of the 'news' is made up. The 'National Report' for example describes itself as "America's #1 Independent News Source" You have to dig deep into the site to find out that all of its articles are fakes (or if you prefer, 'lies') and that it's satire. It's not uncommon to see satire sites being mistaken for genuine news outlets, and their stories get copied, shared and repeated across social media. And of course, that's the whole point; the more outrageous the story, the more people read it, and the more will click on one of the adverts on the page, making in some cases thousands of pounds for the owner of the site. Fake news is big business, and there's no sign at all of this slowing down. Twitter and Facebook don't help matters here, since they just provide another way for people to link to the stories. Facebook got rid of their own human news checkers, and they now rely on automated methods. This has led to a proliferation of 'dust clouds of nonsense' as President Obama described it. There are plenty of other reasons, not just financial, for these dust clouds. A nice juicy click bait story may lead to a website that tries to get you to download malware or viruses. Alternatively it may simply try and get you to visit other websites with the promise of other salacious stories. Of course, some stories will be manufactured to encourage race or religious hatred instead, or to get you to vote in one particular way. The New York Times has recently reported that Facebook, Twitter and other social media outlets have exposed millions of Americans to false stories asserting that: the Clinton campaign’s pollster, Joel Benenson, wrote a secret memo detailing plans to “salvage” Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, the Clinton campaign senior strategist John Podesta practiced an occult ritual involving various bodily fluids.
The number of journalists seems to be set to decrease. The same NY Times article points out that the number of journalists has almost halved from the figure that it was in 2000. This is being replaced by citizen journalists who have no ethical or moral background, and are happy to promote their own nonsense. Mike Cernovich is a meme mastermind of the far right in America - the description comes from the New Yorker magazine in their article 'Trolls for Trump.' The memes, tweets and blog posts get thousands of hits and are retweeted, shared and copied. In a social media world where the number of followers seems more important than what's being said, a single individual can easily hold his or her own against traditional media. It becomes increasingly difficult to work out the good from the bad, the accurate from the fake, and the truth from the lie. If someone sees that a person posting on twitter has millions of followers, it's perfectly understandable to think that they have them for a good reason, and it's worth taking note of what they say - particularly if it mirrors your own world view. It's no wonder that faced with this, media groups like the Guardian are set to cut almost a third of all US jobs. What are we left with? Not a lot really, and we don't have time to work out what's good and what's bad. We can't even believe our own press, when tabloids simply peddle lies as headlines, and they can get away with it. The Daily Mail can use language reminiscent of 1930s Germany to call judges 'enemies of the people', and get away without being called to account for it.
Of course, checking this stuff is hard, and people don't like or want that. In the past you could - at least to a limited extent believe what journalists were telling you (though I appreciate that I'm on very thin ice with that comment), or at least, because you didn't have news being thrown at you every second of the day, you could sit and digest what you had read, and discuss it with other people. We don't do that any longer - we see something that we like and there's a kneejerk reaction to share it without a seconds thought. It then takes on a life of its own, and because your friend shared it to you, and you trust your friend, of course you're going to read, accept and pass it on. How often do we discuss the news these days? I suspect a lot less than we used to. Indeed - what IS the news any longer? We choose for ourselves what is news, and ignore the rest. Moreover, we want to be the ones to get that news out there - we want to be able to provide our friends with the scoop. This puts the traditional news media under intense pressure - are they going to go with a story without checking it, just to be at the forefront of the next wave, or are they going to check it, with the risk that they're going to be seen as too late with the story?
There's also an increasing mistrust of 'experts', whatever 'experts' means. Apparently Britain has had enough of experts, Michael Gove was happy to tell us in the run up to Brexit. The anti vaccination campaign - without any shred of evidence is still capable of getting people to believe in the dangers, rather than the experts who can prove without doubt that these things are safe. Religious movements use their books to tell us that the world was created 6,000 years ago, dinosaurs didn't exist, academics are lying and so on. It's not in the interest of a government to have a well educated, skeptical population - and I admit that I'm prone to the occasional conspiracy theory here - but resources such as libraries close in ever increasing numbers, and the people have to rely on Google, which will quite happily delete links to resources that the governments don't want you to see. As the amount of information doubles and doubles again, it becomes that much harder to find good, honest and accurate information.
Take another example - there's an article on a website at the moment, which I'm not going to link to, but which you can find by searching for brightside dot me and '10 ways to search Google'. This has been shared on Facebook and Twitter, and currently has over 200 comments. The problem with the article is that most of the ways listed do not work, are out of date or misunderstood. Yet people are saying how useful and helpful this is, and how they are going to share the article with their students and colleagues - this includes people who work at universities. I made the point that the article was inaccurate and was met with scorn and sarcasm - 'they're just trying to help' I was told. Of course, they were doing no such thing - the more hits, the more visits, the more clicks, the more money these people make. Why bother to fact check, or to create a useful article when it was quicker to make stuff up or simply copy work that someone else had done. Experts are not to be trusted. Donald Trump can lie 40 times a day, and people don't care. They don't care because they are so used to being lied to it doesn't mean anything any longer. They're happy to believe whatever is thrown at them. There are plenty of quotes to back this up, and worryingly they do come from sources such as Hitler and Goebells. “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it." I suspect that if he had been around today he would have amended the quote to read 'if you tell a lie big enough and share and retweet it enough, people will eventually come to believe it, and share it onwards themselves'.
So yes, I think an information dark age is an apt description for where we are at the moment. People want to believe things to reinforce their world view, and if they feel powerless they want to do whatever they can, and that includes taking content and rebadging it and sharing it on social media. It's surely our role - and I believe an increasingly important one - to challenge misinformation, to teach people how to check the material that they find, to remain ever vigilant and not to fall into the same trap ourselves.