“[A]ny attack on […] the concept of objective truth […] threatens in the long run every department of thought.”
George Orwell; “The Prevention of Literature” (1946)
“How do I find reliable news online?”
“How do free Apps make money?”
If you’ve ever asked yourself these questions, you’re not alone. In the “post-truth” twenty-first century, our information environment is fraught. Controversies concerning “fake news” and the authority of experts shape our daily lives; fringe media attack the validity of democratic processes and COVID-19 disinformation imperils public health. In online life, being popular and getting lots of “views” often feels more important than telling the truth.
All sources—whether reputable or not—can appear equal in the digital sphere. According to W. Lance Bennett and Steven Livingston in their work, The Disinformation Age: Politics, Technology, and Disruptive Communication in the United States (2020):
Democracies around the world face rising levels of disinformation. The intentional spread of falsehoods and related attacks on the rights of minorities, press freedoms, and the rule of law all challenge the basic norms and values on which institutional legitimacy and political stability depend. (p. xv)
The Internet’s business model heavily contributes to the flow of disinformation. Most search engines and social media platforms rely on advertising in order to make money. They sell users’ data–profile information, browsing history, and lists of purchases–to advertisers, who can then target particular groups with marketing content and, in many cases, covertly influence user behaviour. Advertisers want to attach their content to popular websites and videos, and statistics show that polarizing and highly emotional content tends to go viral. Online disinformation gets lots of views, which makes advertisers happy and generates more revenue for technology companies. The result? More disinformation is generated and promoted.
Wondering why you’ve never learned about any of this in school? Well, now you will.
MHC Library Services recently launched the Digital Citizenship Initiative, an instructional program that will help students untangle the social complexities and ethical dilemmas of the digital world. The project educates students on the economics of the Internet and the means by which political bad actors exploit its platforms to pervert the public discourse. Through classroom activities and reference to a wealth of print and audiovisual resources, participants will learn to recognize and counter disinformation and fake news, and understand how social media companies commodify their data. The program is the Library’s contribution to efforts to address the gap in post-secondary instruction concerning the socio-political and economic dimensions of digital existence. Because we all need to know how the online impacts the IRL.
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