The miracle and the menace of the digital revolution stem from the same root: wired communication empowers the individual.
Because the internet and social networks give each person previously unimagined power — over communication, information, commerce and culture — this revolution is proving to be one of history’s broadest and most urgent gut checks.
Can we be worthy, as individuals, of this power?
No one asked for this. We didn’t seek personal responsibility for the quality of civic discourse and the reliability of shared information.
Yet here we are. The massive computational power of our shared platforms, of Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and all the others, is fine-tuned to harvest our whims almost before we’re aware of them. Aggregating and reinforcing those whims, the platforms create the weather systems — the squalls and tempests — of our shared society. To an extent unimagined by past generations, mass communication has become a direct, immediate reflection of millions of individual impulses.
Many utopian claims were made for this power during the early days of the revolution. Broader participation, it was said, would produce better political exchanges. But a new study by scholars at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, published in the journal Sciencem, reveals the opposite: individuals bear much of the blame for fake news. The study found that false rumours travel the internet much more rapidly and widely than facts. These untruths get their velocity and reach not from celebrity influencers but from ordinary citizens sharing among their networks.
Evidently, we humans have a strong preference for novelty and sensationalism over scrupulous reality. Offline, this can be dismissed as a matter of individual taste, but juiced by technology, individual preferences converge into cataracts of lies that wash away bridges of common truth.
“Falsehood diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information,” the MIT scientists concluded after examining more than 125,000 stories shared by more than three million Twitter users. The most viral lies, they found, involved “false political news”.
We can guess why this might be. Politics is tribal. It is a way of organising conflict. To invert Carl von Clausewitz, politics is war by other means. We are inclined to credit anything we hear from our allies and to believe the worst of our foes. In politics we see information as potential ammunition; we evaluate it for its potency and lethality rather than its strict veracity.
We may tell ourselves that we approach politics as a search for the common good, but the internet smokes out our self-deceptions and shows us as we really are. Gambling and porn flourish on the internet; reasoned civil discourse, not so much.
This is a profound blow to idealists of the marketplace of ideas. From Adam Smith to Friedrich Hayek to James Surowiecki, the author of The Wisdom of Crowds, wise thinkers have emphasised the positive economic effects of dispersed power. A great many people, free to pursue the wisdom of their experiences and the perspectives from their vantage points, will arrive — as if moved by an invisible hand — at better results than any single mind or central planning bureaucracy could achieve.
But it turns out that the crowd is wise only when it is asking the right questions. A crowd determined to get the best value on flatscreen televisions will soon discover the proper price; but a crowd swept up by tulips or cryptocurrency may find itself pricing euphoria instead of value.
What we see from Twitter and other platforms clearly signals that too many people are asking the wrong questions in the internet market of political ideas. We are leaping without reflection to spread the juiciest, hottest and most outrageous stories; retweeting the most inflammatory takes; and liking and sharing whatever confirms our biases or makes our enemies look bad — often without reading past the headlines.
If you say people have always been thus, I’ll agree. But our ability to spread our careless and maligned thinking is brand new. Of all the digital-age jargon, perhaps none is more apt than “going viral” because the contagion of bad information is a matter of individuals passing germs from host to host with geometric speed. Only disciplined digital hygiene can halt the epidemic.
In his recent exploration of Russian involvement in fanning racial tension at the University of Missouri in 2015, Air Force Lieutenant-Colonel Jarred Prier documented the way enemy agents feed on the groupthink and hair-trigger responses characteristic of political activity on social media. Without those germs to work with, they would lose their ability to do such damage.
Are there steps Twitter and other social media can take to improve the health of our discourse? I hope so. And perhaps there are actions governments can take without violating freedom of speech. But, ultimately, this is a test of each of us, individually. Difficult though it may be, we must take responsibility for ourselves.
• David Von Drehle writes a twice-weekly column for The Washington Post. He was previously an editor-at-large for Time magazine, and is the author of four books, including Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year and Triangle: The Fire That Changed America