It’s trendy to bad-mouth social media right now as the source for all things fake and misleading.
Social media is not the problem. It’s a problem, in a sense, but it is not the problem.
A long time ago in a galaxy not far from here, Bill Gates once promoted the concept of IAYFT – Information At Your Fingertips. In 1995 it was the subject of a keynote speech he delivered at the COMDEX industry trade show.
His vision then is notable for a two things: it’s accuracy in some of the ways that applications might interact and how the world would become more information-centric, and its complete omission of the unifying network that would be the internet. In 1995 the technology that would become the internet was just being developed, and no one envisioned what it would turn into over the course of the following two decades.
The concept of “information at your fingertips” is downright blasé today. Via the internet, we all have more information at our fingertips that we know what to do with.
And therein lies the real problem.
In years past we had a number of sources of information that we could easily choose to trust; the newspaper and other print periodicals, a handful of nationally televised news programs, our local library, and an encyclopedia, perhaps. Our choices for information were rather limited, but on the whole, they were from sources that were both generally recognized and considered relatively trustworthy. While there was certainly misinformation being spread, it was nothing compared to the levels that we see today.
Enter the internet. Today we have more source of information than we can count. In addition to all the formal and semi-formal news and information sources, in a very real sense, we have each become a source of information for others. The result is an overwhelming amount of information that we have to sift through, to evaluate, to try to understand, and to decide whether or not to trust.
Social media isn’t the real problem, the plethora of misinformation is. Sure, social media contributes to the problem by making it both easy and perhaps lucrative to spread misinformation, but it remains nothing more than a carrier of the disease. Without social media sources of information and misinformation would still exist – likely to be passed around and promoted in other ways, albeit less effectively.
At the risk of looking for simple answers where there are none if anything is “at fault”, it’s our own lack of a healthy sense of skepticism about the information we’re presented each day. It’s not a skill we’ve really had to develop in the past; at least not to the degree we seem to need it today.
We’re not ready. And those who would take advantage of our inability to discern truth from fiction, or our ability to question or own pre-conceived notions, are more than willing to take advantage of the situation.
Social media is simply a conduit; the firehose showering us with information. That there will be misinformation is nothing new. What is new is how much we’re now seeing,and the personal responsibility we each now bear for objective evaluation, regardless of the information source.
What’s required, and not yet well understood, it the personal responsibility we each now bear for objective evaluation.
I suspect that’s something else Bill didn’t see coming.