Infopocalypse Now

The crisis of truth in information that first raised its ugly head in the Brexit vote and the 2016 U.S. presidential election has gone global. The scourge of fake news, alternative facts, hate speech and echo chambers has so corrupted the public discourse nearly everywhere that many no longer know what to believe. And now, we also know that foreign entities have weaponized social media as a means to rattle rivals.

Even as American authorities last week indicted 13 Russian citizens for their efforts to sow Trump-tilted discord in the American body politic during the 2016 election, Russian troll farms sprang into action again this week to stoke divisive emotions in the wake of the Florida school shooting.

Elsewhere, the concern is more with domestic players than foreign influence meddling. As Brazil heads toward elections next month, the president of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal has warned that “excessive concern with freedom of expression” cannot be allowed to undermine the legitimacy of elections through the spread of deceitful information.

The same concerns wrack Italy as it approaches elections next month. In a recent commentary for The WorldPost, Giovanni Pitruzzella rejected the American notion that the “free marketplace of ideas,” would ultimately root out false information. “It could be argued that fake news is not constitutionally covered by the European vision of free speech,” Italy’s anti-trust chief wrote. “Or to put it differently, the European courts would find it very difficult to accept the view of the U.S. Supreme Court, which holds that: ‘Under the First Amendment, there is no such thing as a false idea. However pernicious an opinion may seem, we depend for its correction not on the conscience of judges and juries but on the competition of other ideas.’”

Where to go from that recognition is not so clear. As Andrus Ansip, the vice president of the European Commission, has quipped: “Fake news is bad — but a ministry of truth is worse.”

To address this new conundrum of the digital age, governments across the planet are adopting different strategies, ranging from often ineffective proposals for self-regulation in democratic states to overbearing censorship in more autocratic states, where the excuse of fake news and hate speech is used to squash dissenting truths. In The WorldPost this week, we report on how countries as diverse as Germany, China and Vietnam are coping with this new challenge. And we look warily at the “information apocalypse” on the horizon, when no information can be trusted.

Writing from Berlin, Bernhard Rohleder reveals the pitfalls of Germany’s new Network Enforcement Act, which requires companies like Google and Facebook to delete content considered hate speech or fake news, or face a fine of up to 50 million euros. “Determining what’s legal speech and what’s not is a tricky task, especially when it comes to satire and art,” says the head of Germany’s federal association for information technology, telecommunications and media. “But we must not hand over this critical task to private companies — which, by the way, are often foreign companies. Private enterprises — including America’s largest tech companies — must not be allowed to decide how our basic rights to freedom of speech and opinion ought to be interpreted.” In Rohleder’s view, that’s a task for the German courts, not Mark Zuckerberg.

“Germany is setting a bad example to the European Union,” he argues. “With its many and varied cultural regions, Europe must remain a model and pioneer of freedom of expression throughout the world. Those lacking an understanding of German law — French President Emmanuel Macron, for example — are pointing to Germany to legitimize their own plans against fake news. Moreover, decision-makers in Russia and China must be gleefully rubbing their hands in triumph as they can now refer to the German example when being criticized by Western governments for oppressing free speech.”

Gleeful or not, China exhibits few qualms in controlling social connectivity while promoting the official narrative. As Xiao Qiang of China Digital Times writes, “Ever since he came to power in 2012, President Xi Jinping has attempted to bolster the authority of the Communist Party in part by imposing wide-ranging policies to gain ideological and informational control over the media and Internet. In 2017, the country’s first cybersecurity law came into effect; it requires Internet companies to allow even more surveillance of their networks, submit to mandated security reviews of their equipment and provide data to government investigators when requested, among other regulations.” In the West, private companies may intrude on users’ privacy and exploit their information, but corporations remain apart from the state. Not so in China.

“In China, censorship and propaganda go hand in hand, backed by the use of physical force, including police visits, arrests and attacks by state media on people who have expressed controversial political opinions online,” notes Xiao. “The University of Toronto-based Citizen Lab has identified various surveillance mechanisms used to monitor social media platforms such as WeChat, which can leave people with the sense that they have a surveillance weapon in their pockets. What’s more, these mechanisms remain in effect when individuals leave the country, as do large number of Chinese students who study abroad.”

With over 52 million active Facebook accounts, Vietnam remains a wild west of social media compared to China. In that sense, it is closer to the West. Yet, the Communist Party authorities in Hanoi want to move in China’s direction with a new cybersecurity law — if only their resistant subjects will cooperate. Writing from Ho Chi Minh City, Dien Luong reports that the “Vietnamese authorities have harped of late on the urgency of fighting cybersecurity threats and ‘bad and dangerous content.’ Yet the fight against either ‘fake news’ or misinformation in Vietnam must not be used as a smoke screen for stifling dissenting opinions and curtailing freedom of speech. Doing so would only further stoke domestic cynicism in a country where the sudden expansion of space for free and open discussion has created a kind of high-pressure catharsis online.”

As Luong sees it, “the Communist Party of Vietnam is caught between a rock and a hard place. The blossoming of unfettered social media has obviously unnerved a ruling party that remains unwavering in its monopoly on power. But Vietnam does not have something like China’s ‘Great Firewall;’ it has chosen instead to use a game of cat and mouse to rein in the Internet. In fact, by closely policing social media, the Vietnamese government has tried to appear responsive to the public’s concerns — about, say, tree-cutting in Hanoi or the construction of a cable car into the world’s largest cave.”

In the end, he concludes, “What makes sites like Facebook and YouTube so attractive to users is the relative lack of government control: they get what they want or, at least, what they think they want. But if Vietnam seeks to eliminate the very elements that drew people to the popular social media platforms in the first place, people will most likely begin to ignore them.”

The ultimate endpoint of all this information manipulation by trolls, bots or governments, Aviv Ovadya warns, is a “catastrophic failure of the marketplace of ideas,” where no one believes anything — or everyone believes lies. He calls this eventuality an information apocalypse, or an “infopocalypse.”

“As individuals and institutions,” he writes with reference to Western democracies, “we must ensure that we trust the trustworthy and disregard the disingenuous. Representative government requires accountability, and accountability requires discerning knowledge. But technology is disrupting that edifice of knowledge, and if we don’t act quickly enough, it may soon bring us past the point of no return.”

Ovadya proposes several practical remedies — monitoring the information ecosystem, fostering responsible research and design through “societal impact review boards,” implementing an authenticity infrastructure and ensuring that information markets reward reality. The stakes couldn’t be higher. “I know I would like to live in a functioning civilization,” Ovadya concludes. “Wouldn’t you?”

This was produced by The WorldPost, a partnership of the Berggruen Institute and The Washington Post.