“Fake News,” Runaway Technology & All That

Societies are shaped by technology. That’s always been true.  Be it: fire, the wheel, fermented drinks, the stirrup, the printing press, the internal combustion engine, electricity, the computer.  The applications and management of technological innovation trace a more complex trajectory than the techniques themselves. Nothing is compelling or automatic.

These days, the most radical technological innovations are occurring in the field of digital communications. Other discoveries germinate more slowly, e.g. in bio-medicine. The routinization of invention in IT shortens the time gap between break-through and practical use. Consequently, sober consideration of and preparation for their applications and for their socio-economic implications (to which we might add indirect political implications) lags badly. The resulting challenges and dilemmas have largely eluded us due to the widespread inclination to interpret these technical developments as inherently good and desirable. They represent Progress. That inclination is reinforced by the enormous amounts of money to be gained from their application. Billionaires sprout like mushrooms after a spring rain. That accords them fame, clout and a powerful self-interest to promote the cult of IT progress. The dynamics of pop culture generate hordes of fans, and energized would-be billionaires the way that Napoleon’s victories had every French soldier carrying a Marshall’s baton in his knapsack. The billions themselves buy favorable publicity and politicians.

Most celebrate this phenomenon. It reassures Americans that we’re still the greatest creative nation on earth. It burnishes the Horatio Alger myth. And it offers products that are fun.  Isn’t fun what contemporary America is all about? Especially fun that you have personal control over?

The heady brew of technology, money and fun does have the drawback of muting our skeptical instincts and accepting without question some quite curious innovations in deciding who organizes, manages and directs technology. Here are a couple of current examples.

Facebook, which has morphed into a news aggregator and conveyer – among many other things, is being asked by the federal government to look into ways of suppressing “fake news.”  So, too, are other popular social media such as Google. (Trending Topics feature; AdSense). This is spurred by the latest flurry of incidents wherein malicious or simply moronic persons make up stories and insert them onto the Internet. Social media’s hyper-conductive powers then spread this “news” rapidly around the globe where it is absorbed by the ignorant and the gullible. Big problem! – so we are told.  Why? Well an astonishing number of people get their “news” via Facebook et al. Their minds are open to whatever is spawned since the accumulation of information and critical thinking are out of fashion.

If these conditions are taken as given, then it seems to follow that something has to be done about it, by someone. Maybe, indelible electronic warning signs should be placed on sites/sources that play these games. Maybe, they should be kept out of the social media altogether (even if they could be back under another handle within 5 minutes). Whatever the means, there is an emerging consensus that ‘the people’ now must be protected from their own mindless naivete.

Who should do the job? It’s pretty much taken for granted that the owners/overseers of social media are the right people. Mark Zuckerberg for one. So, the Zuck and his Google counterpart have responded to importuning voices already by jumping out in front with proposals for policing social media in order to save us from “fake news.”  What are his qualifications? He is a celebrity, he is a cult figure, he has huge amounts of money, he’s announced plans to get into the “good cause” business a la Bill Gates (who is devoting his cachet and cash to the cause of dismantling public schools), and he supposedly is apolitical – albeit he’s gotten into the habit of pronouncing on matters of national interest about which he knows next-to-nothing (to be generous).  Zuck, and his enforcer Sheryl Sandberg, practice the art of leaning-in.*

How about public officials who are constitutionally mandated to look after the public interest? If not elected officials, how about an independent regulatory authority? How about a special court like the FISA court? How about the trustees of PBS (overlooking the inconvenient fact that one of the notorious Koch brothers now sits on the Board and a recent CEO was former Chairwoman of the Republican National Committee). The answer is simple: this is America and Americans don’t trust government. If the government does it, any regulation smacks of censorship. If Zuck – along with his counterparts at Reddit, Snapchat and Listening Post do it, then it’s not censorship. Or so we are meant to believe.

The oddity of this widely held notion comes into relief when we compare it with the management of earlier technological innovations – even those in the communications sector. Take the telephone. From the outset, it was conceived in strictly instrumental terms. Companies made service available for which the customer paid a monthly amount. They handled the technical side and the financial side. The uses to which it was put was up to you or me. It was none of the Bell Company’s – or anyone else’s – business. Certainly, Alexander Graham Bell wasn’t called upon to identify purveyors of “fake news” transmitted over the lines and to alert all telephone users whom to watch out for.

Of course, the telephone has been used for criminal purposes, for seditious purposes in extremely rare instances, and for all sorts of nuisance purposes. The answer: have legal authorities pursue possible criminals. As for the rest, it was up to the user to deal with crank calls, sellers of noxious products or ideas, obscenity calls, etc. Nor, we should remind ourselves, were telephone calls overlaid by audio pop-ups recorded by outfits offering their services to clear clogged drains. Selling that audio space would indeed have made the telephone company owners even richer than they were. They might have risen into the ranks of the billionaires and qualified for a cabinet position in Washington. But to do so would have brought down the public’s wrath and the intervention of a state’s public utilities commission (aka a repressive government bureaucracy intent on curbing our freedoms).

It is stunning how far we have regressed in the loss of any sense of collective good and public authorities as its safeguard. Nowadays, we accept the commercialization of an instrument of communication for no other purpose than to enrich Zuck and his fellows. Nobody else benefits. And then we turn to them for protection from the menace of “fake news” which those companies have created – in two ways. By fostering addiction to means of so-called communication that transmit very little information and by using their control of the medium to disseminate dubious content by acting as an electronic newsstand.

The “problem” of fake news can be defined in a number of ways. In the much discussed popular sense, it is the distorting effects that apparent untruthful information can have on the manner by which people understand the world and, occasionally, act – as in voting. Another formulation could stress the role played by unqualified agents in transmitting pseudo-news via the social media.  An even more persuasive definition focuses on the pliable minds of the uninformed and untutored who are susceptible to the promotors of false “news.”

The truly disturbing reality is that neither school education nor the culture of the home prepares people to meet the most elementary responsibilities of citizenship in a democracy. So long as a substantial segment of the population is thoroughly disengaged from the world around them, they will be prey to manipulations in one form or another.  Facebook warning labels are the not the solution, nor are any of the other technical panacea being bandied about.

Moreover, any system of guidance – whether managed by private parties with a commercial interest or a disinterested public commission – risks imposing censorship were they charged with differentiating between the “true” and the “false.” A detached observer might readily conclude that the most prominent and influential sources of “fake news’ are FOX and radio shock jocks of the extremist Right like Rush Limbaugh and Gary Beck. Indeed, it very likely that years of being subjected to the onslaught of their fabrications, vulgarities and demagoguery have prepared the ground for the amateurs of fake news who exploit social media.

One could go a step further to make a powerful case that the mainstream media, too, have at times collaborated in the propagation of “fake news’ to the great detriment of the country. Consider the examples of Saddam’s illusory WMD programs used to justify an American invasion that had other purposes; or the “democratic” uprising against an elected government in Kiev by an assortment of highly dubious characters encouraged by Washington; or the anonymous “rebels” in Syria who are mainly al-Qaeda who run all of the opposition.

Surpassing the MSM’s weakness for “fake news” is the Trump White House’s outright rejection of the very idea that there is such a thing as truthful news. They are into “alternative facts” – as has been vividly demonstrated by the Orangutan psycho-drama.

By any reasonable standard, we have far graver problems than mischief makers on Facebook or Snapchat. On the current scale of mendacity, it is no big deal that there are creeps out there who are convincing the addled that aliens mobilized by Vladimir Putin have rigged voting machines in Pennsylvania to ensure the election of Donald Trump – who secretly has promised them the entertainment concession at his Florida resorts and an annotated list of the women he has groped.

Self-driving cars offer us another instance of runaway technological innovation. It, too, has been unmonitored and its serious implications pretty much ignored. Although not directly placed in the realm of IT, it also is computer driven and a creation of the revolution in sophisticated electronics. Furthermore, it has broken upon us with dizzying speed – from a science fiction vision to dictating where the rubber meets the road.

This invention has been received with adulation. Elon Musk is now a cultural hero on a par with Steve Jobs. And like Zuck, his words as well as actions draw massive attention and deference. Yet, there has been no systematic, critical examination of the applied technology’s feasibility, safety and social consequences. Government agencies barely go through the motions in waving it onwards – like a traffic cop saluting a VIP limousine. Journalists do their stenographic duty in reporting the self-interested views of its promoters. They proclaim that these New Age vehicles will save tens of thousands of lives, billions in auto repair costs, vast amounts of time on miraculously unclogged roads. All this while liberating drivers to do business, write love letters or play video games as their electronic drivers whisk them to their destination. The numbers are pre-cooked – just add faith and simmer for a minute or two. This dream fantasy comes straight from adolescent imaginings.

Free at last! Free at last! Dear Henry Ford Almighty, Free at last!

This exuberant celebration and self-congratulation may be well founded. The truth, however, is that we don’t know how much of this is accurate and how much is hallucinogenic. For there has yet to be any serious testing of these propositions. No trials in anything like real-life conditions: crowded streets populated by hordes of self-driving vehicles and pedestrians, adverse weather and road conditions, iced roads, sudden traffic disruptions, traffic lights/signs, etc. etc. There haven’t even been serious simulations conducted by competent, disinterested parties.

It seems fair to say that what we are experiencing is a technological high. The tone is set by those hi-tech cultists of the sort who gather excitedly to participate at the launching of the latest Microsoft package of wonders. They, in turn, serve the hard financial interests of the product’s promoters – however unwittingly. As for the media, this is another money-making topic in the fashion of the 18 month Trump soap opera. It is not for them to spoil the fun by asking a few searching questions.

Social commentators are joining them in vows of silence about the drawbacks of auto-pilot cars. Let us assume that the dawning age of the automatic car does supplant driving as we’ve known it – even if all the grand promises are not fully realized. Is this a desirable thing? The unstated presumption is “YES.”  But why? Shouldn’t we at least consider some of the downsides?

For example, there is the matter of responsibility and accountability. For the adolescent American, the most maturing experience they have is learning to drive and to take possession of an automobile. Doing so places them in a position of power in regard to their own life and that of others that surpasses by several orders of magnitude anything else (unless they join the military and go into combat). For most, it likely will remain the most maturing experience until they marry.

In the Musk future, they still may learn to drive (by no means certain) – which should give them some sense of accomplishment and mastery. By contrast, there will be no pressure to outgrow a juvenile level of responsibility and accountability. Hell – they then could go on drinking binges without fear of totaling their car or killing somebody. That’s freedom.

The subject of individual responsibility in contemporary American society is multi-faceted and daunting. It is very hard, though, to make the case that a potential removal of a near universal experience that encourages maturation will not add to a bleak and troubling situation.

Can one dispute the proposition that America today suffers desperately from a short supply of responsibility and accountability? A future where Americans can have one more of their basic needs met without effort or applied intelligence – freed to spend yet more time on social media susceptible to fake news – bodes ill for our personal and collective welfare.

* The thinness of Zuck’s qualifications to serve as uber-lord of social media news came home for us last fall when Facebook expunged the infamous picture of a young Vietnamese girl, her clothes burnt off her scorched body, fleeing in terror from her napalmed village. No one in the company recognized it as other than child pornography posted by a pedophile of the S & M variety. Zuck, America’s favorite genius, and his fellow ignoramuses in Menlo Park, were clueless. And that’s a guy who allegedly spent four years at Harvard.

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Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.

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