How the net has de-stabilized knowledge

Peter Bajomi-Lazar, Budapest Business School

The world wide web has eased access to information for all, and yet it has de- stabilised knowledge. How is this possible? A very brief overview of the history of knowledge tells us that the rise in the number of information sources has been coupled with a growth in the unreliability of information. Users of the net may rightly feel they live in an era of misinformation and disinformation, online propaganda and fake news, conspiracy theories and urban legends.

 It was 75 years ago, in July 1945, that Vannevar Bush published his now famous paper in the Atlantic magazine, presenting the idea of the ‘memex.’ The inventor sug- gested to link distant computers in order to create a huge network where “wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear.” The new technology would make information accessible for all and serve the whole of society, he argued. The intelligence thus gathered and catalogued would stabilise human knowledge.

The world wide web, created in 1990, is based on the principles outlined by Bush. But users of the net to date may find the inventor’s optimism unwarranted. Many may feel they live in an era of misinformation and disinformation, online prop- aganda and fake news, conspiracy theories and urban legends. The information that is swiftly, easily and cheaply accessible on the web is oftentimes less reliable than that obtained via traditional platforms such libraries, academic journals and public service media after the investment of some time, effort, and money. In this new ca- cophony of information, it is increasingly difficult to tell true from false. One might even argue that, contrary to Bush’s vision, the net has de-stabilised knowledge.

Is it fair to suggest that information to date is more unreliable than in the past? And, if, so, what kind of an impact does this new information environment exert on our lives?

 

The first propaganda wars

 As Briggs and Burke observe in their excellent book on the social history of the media, the de-stabilisation of knowledge began well before the rise of the internet. After Gutenberg invented printing around 1450, the book market proliferated swiftly across Europe, and readers soon realised that different authors studied the same subjects from highly different perspectives—and came to highly different conclusions. What people had been thinking about the world until that point was now questioned, as the Church had lost its monopoly of truth.

There emerged a long-standing clash among the forces seeking to define the ‘truth,’ best described as the first ‘propaganda wars’ fought between religions in the form of printed treatises. These virtual wars then were turned into real ones in search of religious uniformity, including the Thirty Years’ War that left eight million dead between 1618 and 1648—and behind these wars fought for the monopoly of truth laid the rivalry for political power of Europe’s leading dynasties.

 

Rationalism and empiricism

 In the chaos of ideas and of interpretations, it was the Enlightenment movement that sought to establish a new order based on rationalism and empiricism. An Englishman by the name of Ephraim Chambers published the first encyclopedia, of two volumes, in 1728, which was then followed by Denis Diderot’s famous French Encyclopedia of 28 volumes, published between 1751 and 1772, with the ambitious aim of collecting the whole body of human knowledge.

Rational thinking may have become the new trend during the Enlightenment, but it was in no way universal. Printed books covered a wide variety of subjects, including the occult sciences such as alchemy. The mass press also loved to cover super-natural, mystic and spiritual phenomena, and has ever since widely reported on extra-terrestrials, the Loch Ness Monster, and the yeti—stories that most audi- ences have always loved to read, even though few have actually believed. Even to date, some newspapers carry astrological analyses. Extreme political outlets have al- ways propagated conspiracy theories such as ‘The Protocols of the Elderly of Zion,’ first published in the Russian weekly Znamya in 1903. Even though The Times proved the theory accusing Jews of conspiring to take control of the globe a fabrica- tion as early as 1921, the ‘Protocols’ lived on, became a part of the school curriculum in some Arab countries, and versions of it have remained popular with the public in a variety of countries.

In the Digital Age, pseudo-sciences often go viral. Such content is often pro- duced by swindlers with the clear intention of deceiving people, while everyday users often pass it on with the innocent purpose of helping others. Pseudo-science covers a wide range of subjects, some of which such as earth-flat theories are purely harm- less, while other ones such as the anti-vaccination movement may have a devastating effect.

 

New propaganda

 Throughout the history of the press, most party papers have not hesitated to spread stories based on half-truth or full lies—yet it seems that the number of fake news has multiplied in recent years. A 2019 study by Samantha Bradshaw and Philip N. How- ard found 28 countries in 2017, 48 countries in 2018, and 70 countries in 2019 where the government or some political party used the internet to misinform people. The list of the countries involved also included, perhaps surprisingly, the UK and the US—yet online political manipulation occurred to be more common in countries where authoritarian regimes rule and press freedom is constrained.

What makes online propaganda particularly efficient is that a small number of people can disseminate a great number of fake news at very low costs and reaching an unprecedented number of people. The anonymity of the web allows them to hide their real identity and to pose as independent sources of information. Independence, however pretended, may improve the credibility of the information disseminated.

Information warfare is often sponsored by foreign governments that seek to create online noise that distracts the public. A great deal of contradictory pieces of information will puzzle people who do not know which one to believe. In the mean- time, an army of trolls undermine meaningful debate and rational deliberation, while public trust in the media is on the decline. This noise disorientates people and creates chaos. The lack of widely shared common knowledge enhances the fragmentation of contemporary societies.

In a 2019 study, Hunt Allcott et al. look into the role played by fake news in the 2016 presidential election in the US, and find no fewer than 672 independent fake news sites. Comparing Facebook and Twitter, however, they show that the num- ber of interactions with such news items sharply fell on Facebook after the platform had introduced new techniques to warn users of doubtful content, while their number did not change on Twitter where no such policies had been introduced. This suggests that preventive measures may halt the spread of online manipulation.

Another study published in 2019 by Laura Faragó et al. asks the question of how people decide whether or not to believe fake news. They find that the credibility of a particular news item depends on how it fits into people’s other beliefs. In other words, fake news items follow the same logic as the regular news. The authors also highlight that belief in fake news is unaffected by one’s political knowledge.

 

Bush’s vision to date

 Thirty years ago, academic researchers worried about the lack of pluralism in the media; to date, they are worried about too much pluralism. The recent rise in the number of information sources has been coupled with a growth in the unreliability of information, enhancing the de-stabilisiation of knowledge and hence increasing the fragmentation of society. The lack of commonly shared knowledge may undermine democratic cohesion.

Yet the claim that the internet has only de-stabilised knowledge may be an over-statement. In the current sea of information, there are some islands where reli- able information can still be accessed, because the educated audiences would imme- diately remove or correct misleading intelligence. Nature magazine compared, as early as 2005, the reliability of the information published on Wikipedia and in En- cyclpeadia Britannica, and found that the online encyclopedia compiled by users was almost as reliable as the print one written by professionals. The comparison of se- lected items in English was repeated in other languages, with highly similar results.

The dream of Vannevar Bush has thus come at least partly true: some parts of the web do provide users with reliable knowledge—and are, at least theoretically speaking, accessible for all.

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