Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people. Dumbo Feather is a magazine about these people.
The irony age
Toby Kent explores ideas for navigating our emerging information landscape and its detractors.
Toby Kent explores ideas for navigating our emerging information landscape and its detractors.
We live in peculiar and challenging times. We inhabit a world of contradictions and perversities, an age characterised by profound ironies. Never in human history have we had such a profound level of scientific understanding. We have an ability to gather and use data, enabled by technology, that means we can model and predict specific and general outcomes in ways previously inconceivable. We are also able to disseminate that information at unprecedented rates and speeds. At the same time, ironically, the world is so complex and evolving so fast that for the great majority of people it is harder than ever before to know what their own future may hold.
Alongside this uncertainty, we face existential challenges, in particular climate change, which is unusual in its level of scientific alignment and yet has become a matter of choice, of belief. People otherwise considered successful and sensible make claims like “I don’t believe in climate change” which, scientifically, is about as sensible as denying gravity. Yet it is symptomatic of a world in which the ability to aggregate data to give better insights has simultaneously — and, yes, ironically — enabled individual and niche voices to have previously unparalleled levels of visibility and influence. It also correlates with the ability of non-traditional politicians to create their own truths and rally support behind them, while denouncing mainstream media as peddling ‘fake news’.
The personal experience
My first exposure to ‘fake news’ was in January 2013 when environmental activist, Jonathan Moylan issued a hoax press release from ANZ Bank in my name, where I was then head of sustainable development. The claim, picked up by newswires and investors, stated that ANZ was withdrawing lending to its client, Whitehaven Coal, and reviewing all lending to coal and gas sectors.
This triggered a sell-off in Whitehaven’s shares and a criminal trial for Mr Moylan.
As a sustainability professional, I may have had some sympathies with Jonathan’s environmental intentions but I had no awareness of his plan, and I was certainly unhappy about his actions on a personal level. Going beyond any immediately personal impact, it caused me to question the level of manipulation to which our media is susceptible and the scrutiny applied by journalists in considering their sources.
Roll forward several years and I have again been targeted by people who, this time, are not pretending to be me, but rather are making particularly spurious claims about me. From 2014 to 2020, I had the privilege of being Melbourne’s Chief Resilience Officer, a position initially funded by the Rockefeller Foundation as part of their global initiative, 100 Resilient Cities, now evolved to the Resilient Cities Network.
The network was established to help cities around the world deal with a wide range of challenges that they and their communities may face. I am confident that the Resilient Cities initiative is a benign undertaking. However, according to these conspiracy theories, I am part of a global network of billionaires and politicians who are using the Coronavirus pandemic to control people worldwide through the distribution of nefarious vaccines.
Perhaps there is an argument that if you try to drive change in society, you are putting your head above the parapet and people will take pot shots. Yet the current willingness of people to manipulate others by creating false narratives with personal and far reaching implications is driven by a number of factors, further exacerbated and amplified by technology.
Sitting insidiously beneath the connections is any number of ‘C’ words: climate change, corruption, conspiracies, cronyism, to name a few.
Over a number of decades, some of the largest, most influential institutions have spread disinformation, lied, and consciously sowed doubt about the scientific basis and concerns around climate change. ‘Big oil’ in particular has invested in and applied many of the anti-science techniques previously adopted by tobacco companies to discredit climate experts and prudent politicians who have sought to set policy and action on the basis of scientific rigour.
These same companies — and others with short term business reliance on a fossil fuel economy — have had incredible impacts on the political establishment around the world, none less so than in Australia. Which means those in society who are, broadly speaking, expected to understand and communicate matters of importance and complexity in understandable ways have knowingly spread confusion and undermined trust.
This has been witnessed starkly in the United Kingdom and United States, democracies that the wider world had previously respected, if not always admired. Yet in recent years those democracies and their political establishments have been marked by blatant dishonesty and a willingness to make short-term, selfish pronouncements in the interests of gaining authority and power for a few and, remarkably, this appears to have been broadly accepted by the many.
Those same individuals who have been successful thanks to the spreading of lies, the lowering of standards, and a willingness to discredit opposition regardless of fact have been successful themselves, as well as openly benefitting their personal and business contacts — “cronies” — in ways that would have been considered ‘sackable’ only a few years ago.
So, the very institutions and individuals to whom we are meant to look up are sowing the seeds of concern and conspiracy. In order to have any chance of competing, environmental organisations and activists have borrowed from the playbook of these larger organisations: forming splinter sub-organisations to create a sense of groundswell and at times putting out ‘fake news’.
What should be done at a systemic level?
It is fascinating to be writing this in Australia as the Federal government finds itself in a spat with one of the ‘Big 4’ tech giants (not accountants) — Facebook — over the rights to reproduce, or not, Australian news publications for free.
The government has gone about this in a typically unilateral and clumsy way. This does not mean that government action and regulation are in themselves misguided. The largest global technology companies have unprecedented global influence and we are beginning to understand the potential for ‘social’ media to be profoundly anti-social.
Think, for example, of the correlation between the use of social media and increased teenage suicide rates, a profusion of false information impacting democratic outcomes in the UK and US, or the role of social media — and Facebook in particular — in the sowing of hatred and the subsequent genocide of Rohinga peoples in Burma (Myanmar).
The international community needs to determine ways to regulate these companies, including the possibility of forcing them to break up, as the US government did to the holdings of the ‘robber baron’ industrialists of the early 20th Century — who look positively small and rather quaint relative to the reach and potential for abuse of recent and emerging technologies.
Regulation is a fairly blunt instrument and it may be that some of our best responses come through the development of new technologies themselves. We are beginning to see more tech responses to the challenge of the fertile ground of conspiracies and outright lies online.
Websites, such as factcheck.org and NewsGuard (newsguardtech.com), provide a glimpse into a world in which we can have more confidence in the reliability of the material we consume. As currently set up, these tools require a certain amount of interest and commitment from people who want to understand sources of information and their reliability. In time, we will hopefully get to a point where interfaces are easier to switch on and apply across all online information sources.
I do not envisage a time when conspiracies, salacious gossip and strange communities of interest do not abound online, but the great majority of us should be able to easily validate and/or dismiss the stories that our friends and others share.
Even with more effective, more widely adopted ground-truthing technologies, we still need to ensure that people understand how information spreads online. We need them to develop a sense of interest and questioning rather than being wowed by the lure of grand claims and the distractions of ‘tittle tattle’.
Finland, a once inward-looking country of questionable global significance, has transformed itself into a world leader in both technology innovation and also in education. It has responded to the challenges posed by social media by introducing critical thinking into its school classrooms. A generation equipped to handle and challenge misinformation may be the best solution to combatting fake news and to rebuilding trust among people.
What can we do as individuals?
All of these solutions require structural change that is necessarily long term. We do not need to — indeed cannot afford to — wait for technology and, perhaps, governments to catch up and create platforms for more interrogation and myth-busting online. So here are a few things we can all do today.
Firstly, is social media the best place for you to gather news, rather than news sites? While the algorithms that underpin social media platforms have a certain value in curating news and information for us, that same curation is fuelling more divided opinions online and more divisive positions in society. It is important to supplement your consumption of news by going to news sites — of various leanings — rather than falling victim to the unintentionally corrosive effects of social media alone.
Secondly, while fact checking and filtering all of your news may be tedious, do use the kinds of free verification tools that are already available for sources that seem questionable or claims that lead you to consider taking up more extreme views.
Thirdly, while they are susceptible themselves and don’t get everything right, government-funded independent news channels, such as the ABC, Al Jazeerah and the BBC, do remain generally reliable sources for the majority of citizens and, at a minimum, are worth referencing to understand mainstream views on events.
Finally, and acknowledging that some people reading this might have their own misgivings about state-funded media, be willing to venture where you do not want to go. Actively seek out information sources that are the polar opposite to your natural views and try to approach them with an open mind. If nothing else, this will have the benefit of helping you understand from where others are getting their information.
If you do this through social media platforms regularly enough, while also trying to broaden your information sources, not only will it help you to form more balanced views and cohesive arguments, it should also help to moderate the algorithms that amplify the echo chambers of the digital world.
There are real challenges of living in this free-wheeling, chaotic Irony Age. Some issues are too big for any one of us to get on top of, but we also have choice and agency. We can choose science, we can choose positive connection and action over fear. As with the best ironies, this is a time to understand the challenges and injustices that we face, while smiling wryly and moving forward, confident in what you can change, what you can ignore, and what you can actively dismiss.