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Misinformed about the information age: The existential crisis of online social media

“In a world of information chaos, when people don’t know what is true and what is untrue and who to trust about information, society becomes unworkable”. That was Alan Rusbridger’s comment when asked about misinformation online. Rusbridger, the former editor-in-chief of the Guardian newspaper (UK), is a member of Facebook’s “oversight board” which makes important decisions on the moderation of content on the platform.

Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Parler, WhatsApp and other global online public communications platforms are currently faced with a content moderation crisis. Christopher Mims, the tech writer for the Wall Street Journal, described two questions challenging these online platforms: “How do we make sure we’re not facilitating misinformation, violence, fraud or hate speech? At the same time, how do we ensure we’re not censoring users?”

How did we get here? What brought us into this current era of rapid and viral misinformation? From the beginning, we were actually misinformed about the ‘information age’. The information age began in the middle of the 20th century: a shift from an emphasis on mechanical/industrial production to information technology. One man was central to this shift: Claude Shannon. Shannon is the father of the information age, or more precisely, the father of information theory. Shannon’s theory was an answer to the question of how information could be encoded and transmitted between sender and receiver while maintaining the integrity of the data.

Today’s indispensable technologies that encode, transmit, decode and store information all owe debt to Claude Shannon’s genius. Shannon’s theory quantified information and made it measurable. Because Shannon’s theory was a quantitative theory of communication, the meaning of information transmitted was secondary.

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In his landmark 1948 paper, he stated that “…semantic aspects of communication are irrelevant to the engineering problem. The significant aspect is that the actual message is one selected from a set of possible messages.” Basically, Shannon solved an engineering problem and created the information age.

But, by relegating the issue of ‘meaning’ to the background, Shannon’s theory elevated quantity over quality. He misinformed us (innocently) about the information age. An intellectual giant of the 20th century, along with Alan Turing and Noam Chomsky’s work, his landmark 1948 paper “A Mathematical Theory of Communication” was central to the mid-twentieth century revolution in the information/computer/artificial intelligence field.

The information age has prioritised efficiency over meaning. Twenty-first-century online public communications platforms were created with the transmission of information as the paramount capability. Information quality was secondary. About 25 years before Shannon’s landmark paper, the Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote a 75-page tract. Wittgenstein’s work, written in the frontline of battle while he served as a soldier during the first world war, was eventually submitted to the University of Cambridge as his PhD thesis. Wittgenstein’s book, titled Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (translated as Logical Philosophical Treatise), is about the role facts play in the real world.

Wittgenstein declared that facts make up the real world, facts divide the world (draws the boundaries), logic fills the world and limits it such that some issues are better left unsaid as they cannot be analysed properly. We could draw on Wittgenstein’s work for inspiration and guidance in our current misinformation era. Wittgenstein described philosophy simply as a way of thinking: philosophy (and all forms of analysis) should clarify thoughts: “A philosophical work consists essentially of elucidations. Philosophy should make clear and delimit sharply the thoughts which otherwise are, as it were, opaque and blurred”.

Four different responses to the problem of information disorder and echo chambers have been applied online. The initial response was to do nothing and leave content consumers to discern for themselves. It was argued that the Web is a place for free expression: online liberty should not be stifled. As misinformation became more widespread online, the next response was to censor harmful content (removal of content that was deemed not fit for public consumption).

More recently, third-party actors have created websites that use a set of criteria to fact-check trending online content. Prebunking or inoculation involves exposing the flawed argumentation techniques of misinformation to prepare online content consumers against future misinformation.

‘Meaning’ must take centre stage in the information age if we must combat misinformation online. A focus on facts, logic and clarity. What can be publicly communicated can be communicated clearly with integrity. Some issues are better left unstated (Wittgenstein referred to these phenomena as ‘mystical’). Misinformation can occur when we attempt to state the unsayable: sometimes referred to as conspiracy theories. Systems that filter out untruth, elevate facts and relegate the unsayable to the background will help prevent misinformation propagation.

Uyiosa Omoregie is an online content analyst and member of the IEEE Information Theory Society. uyiosa.omoregie@avramturing.com, @UyiosaOM (Twitter)

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