As with any complex problem there will be no magic bullet but there will be approaches with varying degrees of potential.
Our reactions to these threats cannot be to sling back more propaganda since this only increases the divisions. Furthermore we cannot ask our governments to inform us since both fake news and actual government behaviours have further delegitimised government presentations, such as we have seen on both sides of the Atlantic. We need to augment ourselves.
We should not trust AI to do our thinking for us since then we are no longer in charge. This would be no different from giving up our political power to any political party. We must think for ourselves, we cannot delegate our own augmentation.
We should also not try to build some sort of an objective ‘truth’ machine since the problems are not so much about ‘what’ but much more about ‘why’ and that is where truth is less useful than understanding different perspectives. Any time we believe we have found a truth what we have found is a dogma. Truth destroys creativity and the most urgent, pressing problems we have in the world are complex problems lacking in any single, simple truth.
I further do not believe that we should wait for technology to ‘plug’ into our brains directly. This will happen but it’s quite a ways off and we already have incredibly powerful computer-brain interfaces through our eyes and hands. To wait for this is simply to delegate to the future and to give up on our responsibility now.
It is clear however that both organised education and personal-growth education can help provide us with the mental tools we need to assess what we are presented with and to open up new vistas to explore (to references to Microsoft products at the end of that sentence, not intentional).
It is furthermore clear that organised religion can play a positive part in turning us towards a peaceful spiritual co-existence and away from earthly conflicts.
Art, pottery, mediation, discussion groups, international student travel groups and many other endeavours can also be positive moves to unite us in a world increasingly divided by walls (Marshall, 2018).
Doug Engelbart called for an integrated approach where we take into account the full augmentation system framework. This is an approach discussed in detail in the literature on the Engelbart Institute website and which warrants real and serious consideration: http://www.dougengelbart.org/content/view/164/126/
The proposed approached outlined here however, covers only the individual seated in front of their information display and what tools we can provide them in the privacy of their own thoughts. This is based on my firm belief that the very act of providing more powerful digital tools for thought will empower the dreams of the liberal democracy to survive and thrive. Providing richly interactive tools to empower more freedom of information movement and display will provide the ‘grease’ for greater intellectual movement. The notion is that whenever a mental spark point occurs-whenever the user is curios about something or things something ‘doesn’t look right’, to provide interactivity to light that spark into something bigger, at a mental load below a threshold of noticeable effort.
What is important to consider about democracy is that it is a process, and this process is both a privilege and an obligation. To truly live in a democratic society requires the individual citizen to take ownership this process. The more they do so, the more democratic it will be and the less they do the less democratic. Democracy cannot be offload to someone else.
The question of how we can employ and deploy communications technology to deepen our interactions is a question which goes to the very heart of democracy.
I feel that developing powerful tools can also be an Archimedes Point, a point of leverage which can be distributed widely and effectively to enhance the other efforts to promote a more thoughtful, connected, safe and free world where the feeling of ownership and responsibility is more widely shared.
This is all a bit of an emotional ramble. The next section deals with what building such tools would involve.
Much of our professional and social lives are conducted through relatively small screens and the more important our interactions through these screens become to us the more effort we should, as a society, invest in making the interactions as efficient and powerful as possible.
We are facing continuous increase in what some call information overload, which makes it harder to stay on top of our professional game because of the sheer volume of new information to go though to evaluate and contextualise and to use. The vastness becomes harder to navigate.
We see our social media interactions as a diversion, a pleasant distraction from our mentally taxing online work and this is where our freedoms are actively being curtailed. The word ‘freedom’ is casually thrown around by many and often stands undefined but what I am referring to is specifically the freedom of thought where we have practical access to different perspectives to make up our own minds so that we are neither brainwashed by someone else nor simply passengers of our own prejudice and ignorance.
The ‘warring factions’ include domestic and foreign actors who use deliberately fake news to achieve rifts in their perceived enemy’s ranks. They do this by fostering and exaggerating divisions through presenting the views of one group to anther in caricature light and therefore increasing the perceived distance: “If this is what the other guys are like, then they are crazy!”. They also make the points of the group you agree with stronger, “it’s not correct but it illustrates a point!” causing you to share the fake news as well. The effect of this is to make the sides feel further and further apart.
This is further amplified by the planting of false stories in traditional news media which will sow confusion in the first round and a discrediting of the media in general next. Timothy Snyder (2018) discusses this in detail of how the Russians started this tactic in Ukraine and further refined it in the US.
Yuval Noah Harari writes that “In the late twentieth century democracies usually outperformed dictatorships because democracies were better at data processing”. His illustrative example is how the top down approach of the Soviet Union could not compete with the freer market of the United States–an open market has many more points of decision than a top-down economy. Our cause for concern however, is how the technologies have flipped the information processing balance away from the power of many small processors each with small amounts of data to large data processing centres with centralised massive amounts of data. In other words, the struggle to maintain democracies is not just a struggle against external threats but also internal, structural change.
The information war we are living through, of active bad actors and the silent inertia of power accumulating centrally, is not a war against any particular political party or government; It is a war against the fundamental idea of liberal democracy. This is not a war simply of abstract ideas, it is a war of capabilities, of power–a war where the fundamental issue is one of freedom of thought and freedom of action–we are under attack from those who wish more power to a specific ideology or a specific political class. To fight for the liberty of the citizen it will not be enough to protect the citizen from without, the citizens must be armed with much more powerful means through which they can interact with their information, their thoughts and each other, in an increasingly vast and hostile digital information environment.
The internet is a powerful medium for not only communicating information but also for disinformation. The means through which we can interact with the information will to a large extent determine how deep our shallow this interaction and the resulting understanding will be.