When Marshall McLuhan said, “The medium is the message,” he was telling us something we all understand at a very basic level, even if we can’t articulate it. How we get our information is often as important as the information itself.
The Bible didn’t change when Gutenberg created the printing press. What changed was that instead of relying on priests to interpret it, Gutenberg’s contemporaries could read the words themselves and decide what they meant. The result was the democratization of religious teachings in a way that was previously unimaginable.
As time passed, the new field of journalism organized the rules and conventions regarding how information was presented on the printed page. That structure allowed readers to trust what journalists had to say. When the Framers were creating the US Constitution, they were vitally concerned with the how to guard against the well known human tendency to maximize power at the expense of others.
That’s why the Constitution set up a system of checks and balances, so no group or individual could dominate the government. But they also did something else. They enshrined freedom of the press in the First Amendment. Brian McGrory, the long time editor of the Boston Globe, likes to say that the principal mission of journalism is to “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.”
The Framers relied upon an independent press to probe the dark recess where skulduggery and self dealing might distort the democratic experiment they were creating. Journalism developed a culture that reported only news that was verified, not rumors, speculation, and innuendo. The highest examples of professional journalism in modern times include the reporting by Woodward and Bernstein in the Washington Post that exposed the sordid details of the Watergate fiasco and the Pentagon Papers, published by the New York Times at a time when its actions might have led to criminal charges. Both events changed the course of history.
As television rose to compete with print media, people like Edward R. Murrow, David Brinkley, and Walter Cronkite became the journalist Americans trusted most, to the point where Lyndon Johnson reportedly said about CBS’ coverage of the Vietnam War, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the country.”
The Rise Of The Internet
If the priests and monks in medieval Europe were discomforted by the invention of the printing press, imagine the consternation in the world of publishing, which has been eviscerated by the rise of digital media. Some of the world’s most powerful corporations have seen their empires implode as new empires based on likes and emojis has taken their place. Lawrence Lessing, a Harvard professor and digital scholar now says, “Writing is the Latin of our times. The modern language of the people is video and sound.”
That concerns a group of 17 scientists with diverse areas of interest. In a paper published recently by Proceedings of National Academy of Scientists entitled “Stewardship of Global Collective Behavior,” they argue that “academics should treat the study of technology’s large scale impact on society as a ‘crisis discipline.’ In other words, it is a area in which scientists across different specialties must work quickly to address an urgent societal problem.
Here is the abstract of that paper:
“Collective behavior provides a framework for understanding how the actions and properties of groups emerge from the way individuals generate and share information. In humans, information flows were initially shaped by natural selection yet are increasingly structured by emerging communication technologies.
“Our larger, more complex social networks now transfer high-fidelity information over vast distances at low cost. The digital age and the rise of social media have accelerated changes to our social systems, with poorly understood functional consequences. This gap in our knowledge represents a principal challenge to scientific progress, democracy, and actions to address global crises.
“We argue that the study of collective behavior must rise to a ‘crisis discipline’ just as medicine, conservation, and climate science have, with a focus on providing actionable insight to policymakers and regulators for the stewardship of social systems.”
An Interview With The Authors
Recode contributor Shirin Ghaffary interviewed lead author Joe Bak-Coleman, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington Center for an Informed Public and co-author Carl Bergstrom, a biology professor at the University of Washington, to better understand this call for a paradigm shift in how scientists study the technology we use every day. His interview was republished by Vox.
“My sense is that social media in particular — as well as a broader range of internet technologies, including algorithmically driven search and click-based advertising — have changed the way that people get information and form opinions about the world. And they seem to have done so in a manner that makes people particularly vulnerable to the spread of misinformation and disinformation.
“Just as one example: A paper — a poorly done research paper — can come out suggesting that hydroxychloroquine might be a treatment for Covid. And in a matter of days, you have world leaders promoting it, and people struggling to get [this medicine], and it being no longer available to people who need it for treatment of other conditions. Which is actually a serious health problem.
“So you can have these bits of misinformation that explode at unprecedented velocity in ways that they wouldn’t have prior to this information ecosystem. [Now], you can create large communities of people that hold constellations of beliefs that are not grounded in reality, such as QAnon. You can have ideas like anti-vaccination ideas spread in new ways. You can create polarization in new ways.
“[You can] create an information environment where misinformation seems to spread organically. [These communities can] be extremely vulnerable to targeted disinformation. We don’t even know the scope of that yet.”
The issue is not the advertising that drives online activity. “Exposure to ads may or may not be bad,” Bergstrom says.
“What we’re concerned about is the fact that this information ecosystem has developed to optimize something [contrary] to things that we think are extremely important, like being concerned about the veracity of information or the effect of information on human well-being, on democracy, on health, on the ecosystem.
“Those issues are just being left to sort themselves out, without a whole lot of thought or guidance around them. That puts it in this crisis discipline space. It’s like climate science where you don’t have time to sit down and work out everything definitively. This paper is essentially saying something quite similar — that we don’t have time to wait. We need to start addressing these problems now.”
Where Have We Heard This Before?
Sound familiar? Lots of scientists, including the authors of the latest IPCC report, are trying to tell us that time is running out (or has already run out, depending on who you listen to). That is precisely that same message Bergstrom and Bak-Coleman are sending.
Bergstrom adds,”One of the really key messages of the paper is that there tends to be this general trust that everything will work out, that people will eventually learn to screen sources of information, that the market will take care of it.
“And I think one of the things that the paper is saying is that we’ve got no particular reason to think that that’s right. There’s no reason why good information will rise to the top of any ecosystem we’ve designed. (Emphasis added.) So we’re very concerned about that.”
A Loin Cloth & Buffalo Horns
Bergstrom frets about the disruptions linked to online media.
“I think that the speed with which social media, combined with a whole number of other things, has led to very widespread disinformation — [that] here in the United States [is] causing major political upheaval — is striking. How many more elections do you think we have before things get substantially worse? We need to figure out how to come together and talk about all that. But at the same time, we have to be taking actions.
“This is what Big Tobacco used, right? This is Merchants of Doubt stuff. They said, ‘Well, you know, yeah, sure, lung cancer rates are going up, especially among smokers — but there’s no proof it’s been caused by that.’ And now we’re hearing the same thing about misinformation. ‘Yeah, sure, there’s a lot of misinformation online, but it doesn’t change anyone’s behavior.’ But then all of a sudden you’ve got a guy in a loin cloth with buffalo horns running around the Capitol building.”
Bak-Coleman says the paper he co-authored is a plea for cooperation among social scientists.
“I think what we’re really trying to do is just highlight the need for urgent action and draw these parallels to climate change and to conservation biology, where they’ve been dealing with really similar problems. The way they’ve structured themselves, like climate change now involves everything from chemists to ecologists. I think social science tends to be fairly fragmented in sub-disciplines without a lot of connection between them. Trying to bring that together was a major goal of this paper.”
An Open Sewer
Social media today is like an open sewer. Every cuckoo idea finds an audience, every grievance gets a hearing, every emotion is presented in its rawest, most unfiltered form. Journalism, which prided itself (for the most part) on reporting the truth, is dead. Someday mechanisms may arise to curate the torrent of information available online.
What Berstrom and Bar-Coleman are saying is those filters and constraints need to be crafted and implemented sooner rather than later. When they ask how many more elections that result in lunatics running the country can America tolerate before the effects of climate change doom us all to a most unpleasant demise, it is a plea for rationality and reason to supplant the current state of unfiltered discourse promoted by social media.
Fifty years ago, the song Get Together sung by the Youngbloods taught us, “Fear’s the way we die.” If we are going to spend the rest of our time on Earth hating and fearing our fellow human beings, there truly is no hope for our species.