Tuesday, January 5th 2016
“Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg has announced that he wants to give away $45 billion. I’m sure he needs some advice on how to spend it. Here’s mine: He should use it to undo the terrible damage done by Facebook and other forms of social media to democratic debate and civilized discussion all over the world.” Thus opened Anne Applebaum’s December 10, 2015, op-ed, “Mark Zuckerberg should spend $45 billion on undoing Facebook’s damage to democracies,” in The Washington Post. Applebaum is the Director of the Global Transitions Program at the Legatum Institute in London. Here are some excerpts:
- Weak democracies are the most vulnerable to the curse of Facebook.
- I was recently at a gathering of experts who work in post-conflict countries, and all present agreed: Reconstructing a nation — any nation, whether Libya or East Timor — requires the establishment of a framework for national debate. . . . But if this is impossible — because “mainstream” media don’t exist, because Facebook offers conflicting versions of the truth, because no one trusts what they read — then peace is impossible, too.
- Poor democracies are equally vulnerable. In countries — and there are more than you think — where reputable, fact-checked, independent media don’t function (because they’re too expensive, because the Internet destroyed the advertising market, because illiberal governments put pressure on the media), then the possibility of civilized conversation disappears, too.
- If different versions of the truth appear in different online versions; if no one can agree upon what actually happened yesterday; if fake, manipulated or mendacious news websites are backed up by mobs of Internet trolls; then conspiracy theories, whether of the far left or far right, will soon have the same weight as reality. Politicians who lie will be backed by a claque of supporters.
- Rich democracies haven’t realized that this is also fast becoming their problem.
- Anyone who spends any time in the many alternative worlds that can be accessed via Twitter or Facebook can encounter similarly false information, in many forms and in many languages, every day. Just follow the right Twitter accounts, and you’ll get links to the fake websites and dubious organizations that produce invented statistics. You’ll find friends who believe in the invented statistics, too. If you so desire, you can then go on to live in a bubble entirely divorced from any reality except one created by far-right bloggers, left-wing anarchists or Kremlin spin doctors, all of whom excel at developing this kind of alternate reality.
- But the longer-term impact of disinformation is even more profound: It creates cynicism and apathy. Eventually it means that nobody believes anything. People aren’t bothered by Trump’s lies — or Vladimir Putin’s lies, or the Islamic State’s lies — because they don’t believe anything they read anyway. There’s so much garbage information out there, it’s impossible to know what is true.