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What is true? It’s a question that’s easy to ask, but seemingly ever-more difficult to answer.
A networked world has, as the 20th-century media theorist Marshall McLuhan predicted, created a Global Village: a single cultural space available to anyone with an internet connection.
But that village has enacted a paradox. In bringing us together, it’s pushed us apart. Rather than creating a single story that we can all believe in, it’s allowed a million and more narratives to bloom.
I was reminded of all this by two pieces of news this week.
Donald Trump was acquitted in his second impeachment trial. A chapter closes, but the US remains as divided as ever. Is it possible to reunite the American people around a shared baseline understanding of their socio-political reality?
Researchers at the University of California created deepfake videos that fooled the most advanced, AI-fuelled deepfake detectors. A reminder, then, that while 21st-century media is already a hall of mirrors, it’s set to become a whole lot more confusing.
So this week, reflections on the future of truth, media, and the shared culture we inhabit. Or to put it another way: The Reality Crisis and How To Fix It.
Open societies have always been noisy places. But across the last decade we’ve seen something that feels qualitatively different to just more noise. The sense of living inside a unified social reality – a shared underlying narrative of what our societies are, how they operate, and who controls them – is falling away. Where does this Reality Crisis come from, and what’s fuelling it?
🧭 Lost in the Maze. Two glimpses of the Reality Crisis in 2021. First, a January YouGov poll of US Republicans found that 30% had a favourable view of QAnon, the conspiracy theory that the US government is secretly controlled by a deep-state network of powerful Satanists. Second, the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer – the world’s largest survey of trust in government, business, and media – found trust in all news sources, including social media, has fallen to record lows: 53% said they trusted traditional media. What to make of those findings? We live in a media environment that makes it possible for millions to enter a parallel world; once they’re there, it’s hard to get them back. Meanwhile, many are struggling to navigate an ever-more complex infosphere. Why does this matter? Our democracies depend on mass participation, and that, in turn, depends on a shared social reality.
🏇 The Three Horsemen. So, what’s happened? Yes, it’s technology. But it’s social change, too. The internet brought three changes to the media environment that we’re still struggling to understand, or cope with, or both. First, it weakened the power of cultural gatekeepers – newspaper editors, broadcasters, intellectuals – who policed the boundaries of accepted truth. Second, it fragmented our media in strange and powerful ways: a billion and more Facebook Groups, WhatsApp channels and Twitter profiles arrived, and they have infinite potential reach. Third, it created virality: a property of networked information that we still don’t fully understand. The recent GameStop meme stocks debacle showed how we can still be caught unawares by new and unexpected viral dynamics. The death of the gatekeepers, fragmentation, and virality: these are the Three Horsemen of the Info Apocalypse. Meanwhile, we’re decades into the ongoing rise of an assertive equality, which can be traced back through the social revolution of the 1960s, and which has problematised the idea that some opinions are better than others. It’s the convergence of these two related shifts – technological and cultural – that’s so potent.
📜 The Same but Different. It’s worth remembering that the Reality Crisis is in one sense only a return to the historical norm. For most of history most people lived inside social realities that competed with – or were completely at odds with – those in the neighbouring valley, city, or nation. First the printing press, and then the invention of radio and television broadcasts, made possible the imposition of a truly universal culture. These were top-down media technologies, controlled by a cultural elite. That kind of media environment has problems of its own. When gatekeepers police truth, many voices are banished to the margins. If top-down media is hijacked by a tyrant, it’s far harder for people to seek or express alternate points of view: the emergence of broadcast technologies and the totalitarian systems of the 20th-century are intertwined stories. That world is gone, and maybe some of those problems are gone with it. But now we have a multiplicity of social realities plus the internet; that’s unknown territory.
The scale and complexity of the infosphere is bewildering; more than 100 billion pieces of content are posted to Facebook alone each day. So how do we fix the Reality Crisis? Approaches to that question must be founded in the idea that the internet has created new forms of speech, which necessitate new kinds of rules. And that we must look to ourselves just as much as we do Big Tech.
🗯️ Internet Speech is New Speech. When we talk about media, we’re talking about forms of speech. And forms of speech are governed in various ways. A conversation between friends, for example, is governed by complex and unspoken social norms. Meanwhile, most societies say that being a publisher means engaging in a special form of speech, which comes with its own legal obligations: here in the UK broadcast media must be politically impartial. The central problem with much online media that it breaks the old definitions we’ve used to delineate forms of speech. Is Facebook a publisher? Not really. When I send a message inside a large WhatsApp group, is that private or public speech? No one really knows. The internet is a new form; we need to evolve new categories to deal with it. History suggests our ambitions should be modest. Remember, we’ve never really solved the set of problems created by the invention of the printing press and the rise of newspapers. Rather, we modulated them via new laws, and taught people not to believe everything they read in the National Enquirer.
✊ Regulation x Decentralisation. So what does this new governance of online speech look like? We should aim at a mixture of regulation and decentralisation. Regulation will get big platforms to accept responsibility for illegal content. It could also force them to be more transparent about the algorithms that display and moderate posts. End game: for platforms of sufficient size, those algorithms must be at least partly under democratic control, via elected oversight boards. Meanwhile, decentralising the big platforms means handing more control to users to moderate, flag, or remove content. Yes, it would be chaotic, but it’s the only way to allow new and productive social norms to evolve, and for those norms to be widely enforced. We’ve seen it can work: think Wikipedia. All of this should be underpinned by a new conceptualisation of the infocommons: the shared informational space that belongs to all of us.
🧘 Reordering Ourselves. The infocommons will always be chaotic and strange. It will continue to mutate in ways we don’t understand. No regulation can resolve that. No moderation – human or machine – can perfectly constrain it. So we must turn our attention not only to the sources and nature of our media, but also to its recipients: ourselves. We need to do more to prepare our children for life inside the 21st-century information environment. We know the fundamental principle to teach: scepticism, and an extention of the old, Gutenberg-era rule don’t believe everything you read. We need to forge a culture in which equal dignity for all can sit alongside the idea that some opinions – informed, evidence-based, reasoned ones – are better than others. And finally, we need to develop new and more compelling shared narratives. In 2021, the stories that dominate our culture – all versions of Nothing is Wrong; Keep Going! – are broken, and rising numbers can see it. The pandemic has opened up a space in which we can confront the fictions – around work, the economy, the planet – that shape our communal life. We need to embrace that chance.
Ghost in the network
Thanks for reading this week.
The future of truth remains uncertain. There’s just so much we don’t yet understand about the behaviour of information and people inside a networked world.
All I can promise is that New World Same Humans will be watching the evolution of the infocommons every step of the way. And seeking to understand what it all means for our shared future.
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Your membership of this community means a lot; and that’s the truth. I’ll be back on Wednesday. Until then, be well,
David Mattin is the founder of the Strategy and Futures Research Unit. He sits on the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Consumption.