Friday, February 5, 2016

Rallying call "Separate propaganda from truth" - another German internet OpEd & how to fix things

Let's start with a fix of sorts: Google, Twitter and Facebook need to get themselves some bona fide foreigners on the Board of Directors. Facebook's Mr. Thiel might or might not count as one, depending on how you look at it.

Lobbying seems to have worked mostly, but over here in old Europe, there's some shrill stuff lobbed at, for the moment, mainly these three players.

Take this OpEd in Germany's Frankfurter Allgemeine: "Lies on the internet. Separate Propaganda from Truth!" [our translation of Lügen im Internet Trennt Propaganda von Wahrheit!] *

The lead in is "The internet has become ugly, hostile, and incensed. And now, it loses the truth, too. How a medium of enlightenment became an instrument of irritation."

The OpEd is well written, as you would expect from a professional journalist. So, it is tempered by praise of the net as "one of humanity's greatest cultural achievements". Criticism is couched in nice statements, for example, that tolerance is on the retreat in "numerous" areas, not a plain old "on the retreat".
There is the nod to the fact that the internet "is only as good as the people using it".

In between all of these are the claims:
1) Now, truth on the internet is getting lost.
2) It "increasingly becomes an instrument of irritation, disinformation, and propaganda".

Supporting facts?
Another claim, namely that "conspiracy theorists were a tiny minority until a few years ago" but that propagandists and swindlers now reach deep into "middle Germany", followed by rhetorical questions: Did Ukraine shoot down MH17, do refugees really steal goats from German petting zoos, can we really be sure that Berlin police is not covering up the alleged rape of the girl Lisa?

The examples come from Russian propaganda and obvious wingnuts.

They are published in a German paper that swallowed hook line and sinker the big lies that were used to get the West into all wars since Korea or to make them more palpable to us.
But "why does the truth have such difficulties"?.

"The more it [the net] turned into a mass medium, the more its character changed."

Blaming the unwashed and uneducated again. And so it is that "cat video beats a nature documentary, rant beats sophisticated argument. And the purely invented often displaces the truth."

The suggested solution sounds reasonable enough: search engines like Google need to find ways to differentiate better between credible sources and propaganda and conspiracy theories. Google has been working on this, but there is no mention in the OpEd, no mention either on search engines that strip your data before submitting a query - preventing personalization.

Easing into the next paragraph with "It is not censorship but taking responsibility" prepares for the gut punch: "No multinational company can forever let its products be a vector of division of society, fuel hate and distrust, help propaganda and lies."

By now, the bold statement that the internet "is only as good as the people using it" does not matter any more, does it?

These days, there are data on how many users trust news in social media - not many, it turns out in Are those nefarious social media bubbles a figment of our imagination?

And what does it say about an OpEd in a paper discussed in Who's afraid of Google? Turns out, lots of people.

Do you remember the yellow pages? Oh, you are not old enough, okay, then read why they also manipulated your world view in Google manipulates your world view? Stop yelping!

Oh, and no, we don't dislike Frankfurter Allgemeine reporting, only most of their OpEds.Yes, you could argue that the piece is not an OpEd because it doesn't appear in the OpEd bar near the bottom of the page. Which would make it infinitely worse because of the absence of research apart from a few quotes.

We do agree with the author that a cat video beats a nature documentary: His own newspaper has ample internet video evidence of that.

* You are welcome to criticize our translations here. We do believe they are accurate enough to support our reasoning.

[Update] Fixed typos, added italics to highlight quotes. Added sentences "Yes, you could argue..." and "We do agree..." re cat videos.

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