ANALYSIS: A danger of social networks for society

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a five-part series.

This series of articles examines social media providers that help undermine, falsify and distort information on the internet. This information is exchanged between millions of users around the world. These providers generally do not create this information, but it passes through their systems.

Information in newspapers and other media can be high quality (accurate) or low quality (inaccurate). With respect to my local newspaper, it is my opinion that Coeur d’Alene Press reporters write high-quality articles, although I may disagree with their opinions on the issues. Because their columns are read by many people, they are not allowed to be inaccurate or misleading. Some readers support their claims, but others do not and may dispute The Press’s opinions, which appear frequently in Letters to the Editors section of the paper.

Newspapers, magazines and printed books are individual models. A publisher, such as The Press, must send a copy to each person who pays for the publication. This model is very expensive to maintain, let alone make a profit.

In the past, mass media output, especially newspapers, magazines, and books, was subject to the eyes of readers and other critics who watched their content. Today, these news media still have some of that kind of scrutiny, but not as much as before.

Why has this model changed? Because much of this printed material is now electronically digitized and therefore subject to the high speeds of modern computers and computer networks. Print media struggle to “keep up” with electronic competitors who operate at the speed of light and, with a single copy, can send millions of copies to users through the electronic delivery capabilities of the cyberworld.

Notwithstanding this capacity and speed, why should these technological improvements run counter to the continued practice of publishing high-quality news and other information? The answer is simple: these responsible news outlets are overwhelmed with millions of people who only need a PC or smartphone and an account with an internet or cellular service provider to become their own journalist, their own editor.

This new breed of writer-editor typically has no training or experience in responsible journalism, but that person often makes up for that shortcoming with a very large ax to grind.

It has become clear that a large number of individuals in societies around the world do not care whether the information they place on the Internet is of high quality. Their main concerns are: does this information fit with this person’s vision of life? Does it match the person’s ideology? Can he gain recognition from the person?

As discussed in a later segment of this series, this situation is made more dangerous because the networking capacity of the cyberworld allows a malcontent to bond with other like-minded malcontents, resulting in a proliferation of groups of uninformed and often angry citizens.

Thus, the capabilities of the modern cyberworld allow almost anyone, skilled or not, knowledgeable or not, biased or not, to become their own source of information; make their views known to millions of people simply by owning a PC or smartphone and having an online account.

In our modern cyber world, high quality content reviews are difficult to achieve due to the sheer volume of information and the speed at which it is created and delivered to millions of people. Humans have always been challenged to assess the quality of information they receive from others. The internet and smart phones make these assessments much more difficult.

Today, thousands of self-published blogs, websites, and podcasts are generally not subject to meaningful quality review. The amount of traffic that should be reviewed – re-read, if you will – is staggering. For example, Facebook alone processes 50 trillion bytes (characters) per day, which equates to just over a billion copies of this article.

The age-old “everyone wants to be a writer” fantasy is just that: antiquated and outdated. Today, with privately owned and operated websites, blogs, and podcasts, anyone – knowledgeable or ignorant – can be a writer, journalist.

The result? We increasingly receive very poor quality information via social media, most of which is downright false. It undergoes little or no scrutiny for its accuracy. Because it comes through the electronic and digital world – the cyberworld – far too many people think it has the quality of the traditional print word of the newspaper, the “old-fashioned” way of keeping us informed.

This ancient method still proves to be the best approach, the most accurate practice, to keep American citizens informed and aware of what is happening in our society. But as we will see in this series, that path is threatened by many internet social media users with an ax to grind, who present their grievances with a distortion of facts, often with lies. Their ill-founded protests prevent Americans from being properly informed.

A society made up of ill-informed citizens is impossible to sustain. Sooner or later it will crumble into a chaotic cacophony of ignorant and conflicting factions. Time and time again, our history books record this recurring deadly human intramural.

During his career, Uyless Black has consulted and lectured in 16 countries on computer networks and Internet architecture. He lives in Coeur d’Alene with his wife, Holly, and their fierce three-pound guard dog, Bitzi.