Post-truth politics. Information silos. Cognitive biases. Propaganda. Lies.
Perhaps the biggest victim of the rapid, unregulated democratization of media is the truth itself. Experts across all industries and disciplines bemoan how quickly facts and information are now tossed aside in public discourse in favor of ideological rhetoric from our favorite sources. "Truth is dead!" they cry.
But truth is not dead. Nothing can kill truth. It exists, as it is, regardless of our individual perspectives and narratives. We can, however, refuse to see it, acknowledge it and let it inform our choices. Which is precisely where we have arrived in our society.
All of us are in a daily routine of digital fire-hose media consumption and selective reasoning based on only the parts of truth that confirm what we believe. The speed with which we must absorb and assimilate information today means we must all rely on our biases and emotions to determine what is true and what is not - often within a matter of seconds after consuming new information.
Deliberative democracy has become reactive anarchy, with everyone choosing which facts matter and which do not, dismissing anything that contradicts their ideological perspective as 'fake news'.
None of us are prepared to be the arbiters of "capital-T Truth." Even if we happen to be experts on a particular sliver of Truth, there is much in modern society for which me must depend on others' expertise in order for us to form our beliefs and opinions; and most of us make the best choices we can based on the best information we can find. Society depends on us trusting one another, working together for the greater good.
So what can we do to ensure that we're working with legitimate information and proven facts? How can we know that the political or social platform we're participating in isn't omitting or ignoring important facts that might change our views, choices and public policies? How do we know that the experts we're depending on are ethical, and that we aren't being manipulated for their agendas? How do we know that we're right?
It's important to recognize that we aren't right most of the time. That would be a statistical impossibility. Furthermore, the truth is almost always far more nuanced and complex than we want to think it is. So a little intellectual humility can go a long way in helping us seek new information, constantly clarify our positions and, yes, even admit when we're wrong.
But for the purposes of daily engagement with information and news, the most important thing we can do to keep ourselves and our society from dissolving into chaos is to insist on information integrity. What does that look like in practice?
- It looks like vetting your sources of news and making sure the people who are producing it are trained, educated and adhering to a set of professional ethics and guidelines.
- It looks like seeking out opposing viewpoints and trying to understand the reasons people believe differently than you do, without dismissing them as stupid or evil.
- It looks like holding media organizations and individual journalists accountable - not "cancelling" - holding them accountable, which allows for professional corrections, when we discover that they haven't conveyed information responsibly.
- It looks like demanding transparency in funding for academic research, journalism and government.
- It looks like refusing to share anything on social media that you haven't read and understand - and can defend with facts.
- It looks like not shying away from facts that contradict your own beliefs because they are inconvenient.
- It looks like taking responsibility in public when you do share bad information, letting people know that you made an error.
We, the people, are no longer simply consumers of information. The democratization of media via social media means we are also all producing media every day. That's a lot of power, and with power comes responsibility. It's convenient to blame "The Media" for our current state of disinformation online, but ladies and gentlemen, today we are The Media, too.
The Principle of Information Integrity says that good digital leadership involves a rigorous commitment to finding and sharing only the best, most authentic information and standing behind what we produce and share online.
Find out more about the Principles of Digital Civic Culture and the Institute for Digital Civic Culture here.