Saturday, December 3, 2016

Double-edged sword

The pen is indeed mightier than the sword but in today’s media landscape that pen has become a sword - a double-edged one serving both good and evil. The proliferation of extremist propaganda and fake news are making me reconsider my views on the social media I work with and have promoted so enthusiastically. The ability to build a global professional network, share ideas and learn from others has transformed my life and I spend a lot of my time helping others to use social media to create new opportunities. The net offers us platforms and tools for collaboration, creation, sharing and learning that were simply not possible 15 years ago. However we have rather naively assumed that these opportunities would be used to spread knowledge, learn from each other, build greater understanding, overcome barriers and foster a new spirit of enlightenment. We assume that human civilization has a positive linear development but right now we seem to have encountered some very worrying turbulence.

The tools that enable us to publish our ideas in a polished and professional format and make them accessible to a global audience can also be used to spread extremist ideologies, prejudiced propaganda, hatred and subversion. Lies can be presented as convincingly as the truth and fake news is as slick as the traditional news media. In your Facebook feed it’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s fantasy and even checking sources can be difficult since many propaganda sites are disguised under banners like “independent” or “alternative” that can mean just about anything. Quite simply if an article confirms our own world view we will tend to believe it. Some people are good at creating fake stories that will provoke a certain volatile target group and they then sit back to enjoy seeing the chain reaction of anger that their fake article causes while at the same time earning considerable income from their on-site advertising as the click rate goes viral. There have always been extremists and conspiracy theorists but in the past they only reached a very limited audience, often using extremely poor quality pamphlets sent to like-minded people. Today a lone eccentric has a global voice and there are plenty free tools to help him/her create highly professional websites, podcasts, video channels, publications and social media presence. If you’re willing to put in the time and effort you can seem like a whole organisation rather than an individual.

Our basic trust in the development of democracy and increasing transparency has so far lead us to reap the benefits of the internet. We happily embrace the net giants like Google, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft because although we are concerned about security we trust that these companies are basically benevolent and our governments will make sure that our data is not misused. But what happens as more countries turn to authoritarian populism with less transparency, less accountability and mass surveillance? The media that have helped us foster greater openness and global collaboration are also being used in the opposite direction. Repressive regimes all over the world are becoming very creative at manipulating social media to target dissidents.

How does education meet this harsh new reality where fiction and fact are so hard to tell apart and where monologue is replacing dialoge? Is it wise to continue advocating openness and instead teach how to cover our digital tracks? Are privacy and security the new key digital literacies? If there is a risk that the data will fall into the wrong hands we need to get smart and quickly. Learning analytics offers enormous benefits for education but in the wrong hands the prospects can be frightening. Schools and universities need to put source criticism at the forefront of the curriculum but even that is a double-edged sword. If you are convinced that there is an establishment conspiracy then your source criticism will treat all traditional news sources as suspect.

I have no answers to all this. It's rather complicated at the moment. Where is Gandalf when you need him?

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