The rapid spread of “fake news” and “alternative facts” on the internet is a threat to freedom as such data can be used to manipulate people into doing things that are not in their best interests. In a recent article Vinton Cerf claims that the only antidote to such an eventuality is eternal vigilance and critical thinking on the part of the general public.
Before the internet era we would rely on the editorial integrity of established media to filter out rumours and falsehoods. Now the main stream media itself is accused of supplying “fake news”. Vinton Cerf (2017) points out that free societies supporting a high level of tolerance would accept or reject ideas based on accepted social norms, although slavery, Holocaust, and Apartheid were accepted social norms at some point in time and space. Thus social norms are not sufficient to ensure a society that is free for all. We cannot depend on the state or church to decide what is socially acceptable either. Left unchecked such institutions can manipulate the media to suit the ends of a small elite. Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky (2002) would claim that it is happening already. “Weapons of mass destruction,” …anyone? Cerf(2017) claims that liberty as we know know it may not survive the digital age if the general public do not apply critical thinking to identify the truth. To paraphrase a popular saying: there are none so stupid as those who refuse to think.
Sadly the short sightedness of the electorate in some developed countries in recent months does not bode well for the future of a free society as we know it.
Vinton Cerf (2017),Can Liberty Survive the Digital Age?, Communications of the ACM, May 2017, 60(5), pp.7.
Edward S. Herman & Noam Chomsky (2002), Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media Pantheon Reprint edition, New York, January 15, 2002