I usually try to confine my blog to industry related subjects within finance, technology and innovation. But every once in a while I feel that am faced with such great levels of ignorance that I an unable to restrain myself.
When the official spokesperson for the president of the USA is accusing the press of false reporting for questioning his blatant lie that we saw the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration we have reached a level of disrespect for facts that would make comical Ali proud. As I thought this mockery of truth could not get any more surreal, the presidential administration calls for order and states that they are just presenting alternative facts, a term coined by George Orwell as a is a euphemism of propagandists and authoritarians.
With all the information in the world only a few keystrokes away, one should imagine that the ability to distinguish rumors, gossip, propaganda and beliefs from facts and scientific proof should be a natural trait for everyone with a smart phone and an internet connection. Unfortunately that is far from the case. A Stanford study conducted last year found that the majority of middle school students can’t tell the difference between real news and fake news, and described the results as dismaying and a threat to democracy. As a response, Facebook has announced that they will look for ways to mitigate fake news and misinformation through their services since more than a quarter of 18–24s say social media are their main source of news.
However, the problem is not fake news, a term that according to many already has lost its meaning. What started out as a term describing deliberately fake news (often originating from 4chan) has now become a collective term ranging from hoaxes, propaganda, deliberate misinformation, a way to delegitimize opposing views, a way demonize political opponents, end the list goes on. With the past US election, there are no lack of examples proving how information can be used to manipulate the perception of truth in a digital world. Fake news is merely a collective terms describing some of the symptoms of the actual underlying problems.
We are living in an era of information overload, and the inherent dynamics of digital media is creating a negative spiral where we are faced with a reality where scientific facts are challenged by subjective opinions with no underlying evidence. Where a misconceived perception of the concept of critical thinking is viewed as a free pass challenge everything without a single verifiable prerequisite or valid source. As a result, people are believing things such as that vaccines cause autism, even though the factual evidence telling that this is a blatant lie is overwhelming. As a result, diseases that we considered extinct in most parts of the world are now increasing dramatically.
The ability to call shenanigans on everything also acts as way to discredit every source of information that poses an alternative view of the world than your own and accuse such sources as having an agenda. As political polarization has increased in the run-up to the 2016 election, trust in the media has become a major issue. There is an increasingly fragmented media landscape with varying sources of reliability. If you are unsure where to look for content in this landscape, Vanessa Otero made an excellent overview of this.
The problem however is if our viewpoints are rooted in either of the extremes, our minds will seek out additional stories that confirm what we already believe. Personalized news and algorithmic content selection of news also mean missing out on important information or challenging viewpoints, thus enforcing our inherent confirmation bias.
Critical thinking is a necessary skill in a digital world. However, the term loses its meaning when zealots claim that proven theories are just a theory and conspiracy theorists claim to be just asking questions to challenge absolute facts. So is the case with source criticism, when political figures discredit every source that do not underpin their own political views as crooked or downright deny the validity of every single piece of evidence that is presented (no matter how overwhelming).
The world is changing at an exponential rate, and the ability to base our decisions on facts rather than gut feeling is more important than ever. We must seek the ability to separate fact from fiction and strive to assess both sides of a story before making up our minds. Lastly the freedom of speech and an unbound and objective press is more important than ever.