Posted by Charlotte Ebbutt, Solicitor
The era of data-mining and the evaporation of trust online – What can we do?
The Royds Withy King sponsored Oxford Debate with Alice Thwaite and Matthew D’Ancona on Saturday, part of the Oxford Literary Festival, provided plenty of food for thought on the post-truth era. The emphasis was on the analysis of how people consume information in the age of stories such as the alleged Facebook data breach, and how to make people feel more secure despite the destabilisation arising from recent world events and the rapid advance in technology.
World events such as Black Friday and the extremely rapid advances in what companies can do with your data, combined with national events such as the Parliamentary expenses scandal, hacking of mobile phones by elements of the press and the enquiry into what trusted institutions knew about child abuse have all served to contribute to an apparent collapse of trust in the institutions that were the gatekeepers of information. This increasing insecurity is only compounded by algorithms pushing us further to our existing pre-dispositions. If we have a conspiracy theory we will be sent more and more information to support it. Matthew D’Ancona pointed out by way of example that membership of the US Flat Earth Society has increased to 16 million.
Triggers for psychological discomfort
Alice Thwaite, currently pursuing her Masters at the Oxford Internet Institute, explained that the technological environment is triggering us to feel more uncomfortable about what information is true. Other factors in this sense of discomfort include many people now navigating core values without the template previously provided by religious belief. Echo chambers of social media can be significantly polarising. People react with moral outrage as a means of proving their identity to others when they see words that trigger their inner rage. The nuances available in visual communication, and to a less extent in verbal communication when accents and differing interpretation of language are discernible, are not available in text communication. Individuals therefore respond in a rapid, aggressive and polarised manner to perceived threat and results from heightened awareness borne of discomfort.
How to address the fragility
Matthew D’Ancona explained that attempting to prove these fear-based responses wrong by factual argument often results in re-enforcement of those beliefs. The example he used was that more Americans believed that Barack Obama had not been born in the US after he released his full birth certificate than had done beforehand. If you animate the curiosity of these individuals and engage them with other ideas then you are more likely to effect a change in their view. Matthew went on to emphasise the need for all of us, especially children and young people, to be taught how to filter and analyse the veracity of digital information. Digital literacy is key to removing some of the fragility felt by society at the moment.
Alice Thwaite emphasised that alongside the digital warfare being carried out by Russia and China dedicated to undermining western democracies, which must meet with proportionate retaliation; there are also hugely positive aspects of the rapidly changing digital environment: the Arab Spring and #MeToo movements for example would not have happened without these changes.
An environment permitting people to live true to their own values, whilst maintaining agreed core values in common with the other members of society, and educated to understand how the Internet works enabling them to interpret its content could be a positive and healthy one. The difficulty comes in establishing the core values in common. People will have to be more tolerant of others’ views in order to have the discussions necessary to reaching those core values, not wanting to cause offence will hamper such discussions on key issues.
Pluralism plus education equals a brighter future
The digital world has developed extremely rapidly and we need to catch up to alleviate the feeling of an unhealthy lack of control felt by many. Providing quality education and proper access to digital media will result in a digital enfranchisement that will be of benefit to all.
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