The internet is arguably the most powerful and important invention in the history of human existence.
Since the dawn of the world wide web in 1989, the internet has completely transformed life on earth. Almost every aspect of our daily lives are either controlled or influenced by access to the internet and many of us would struggle to get through a day without it.
But the connotations of this fantastic marvel of modernity go beyond the ability to download Candy Crush to play on the morning commute; one such effect that the internet threatens to have is the liberation of the world’s poor through the open sharing of information.
We are the first generation of people in human history ever to know with a somewhat high level of confidence the details of how other people on the other side of this big blue planet live. We know what salaries most people earn, what their lives are like, how their political systems are managed, how many hours they typically work, whether they get free housing or education or healthcare and we are easily capable of comparing their circumstances to our own.
Searching for Context
The child labourer in the sweatshops of Bangladesh has the ability, albeit more limited than most, to find out what their life would be like had they won the birth lottery and been born in most parts of Western Europe.
The shopper on the High Street in the UK has the ability, albeit not necessarily the inclination, to discover that the very same child labourer made their new pair of shoes and that the company paying the child labourer a pittance pay a lower rate of tax than they do.
The average American can easily find out that they live in perhaps the only industrialised country in the world that doesn’t offer healthcare as a basic human right to its own people. The average Trump voter can also easily go on YouTube and compare Trump’s pre-election promises about draining the swamp with his post-election actions of filling it with swamp creatures from Goldman Sachs and ExxonMobil.
You can use DuckDuckGo to uncover the fact that 16.5m working-age adults in the UK have no savings, or that 37% of working families in the UK would be unable to pay their housing costs for more than one month if one of the two workers in the household lost their job.
A Broken System
These facts are dangerous to the ruling classes of our respective “democracies”. Ignorance is a key ingredient to maintaining an imperfect system and a system which rewards the richest 1% of the global population with 82% of all wealth created in 2017 is clearly far from perfect.
Nobody can make a compelling argument that the richest 1% just work hundreds of times harder or are hundreds of times smarter than everyone else. No one can really argue, either, that people who work a full-time job, as well as a part-time job, whether it’s cleaning toilets or making deals in the City, don’t deserve the opportunity of an otherwise fulfilling life.
So it’s a rather simple equation; if the current economic system continues to benefit a minority at the expense of the majority, then change is inevitable, unless people can be stopped from becoming aware of these truths.
Anyone with an internet connection can easily educate themselves on the fact that our global system was created by, is managed by and benefits the already rich. Anyone can find out that the Tory government’s austerity has been labelled as a breach of international human rights by the UN.
The government has three choices, it can either (i) obfuscate, (ii) discredit all criticism as fake news, or (iii) stand behind their policies with reasoned debate. What we tend to see is a mix of (i) and (ii). But in recent news, governments are taking things a step further: the UK, France, Brazil and others have put pressure on social media outlets or proposed the passing of laws purporting to tackle what they deem to be fake news.
On the surface, many people may view this as a good thing, but in order to classify anything as fake news, somebody must be granted the authority to decide what constitutes fake news and is there anyone that a plurality of people would trust to be this arbiter? Surely at a time when distrust in the establishment is consistently polling at record lows, nobody would want the government or in the case of Brazil, the federal police, to have control over the censorship of news.
And whilst governments are only starting to plant the seeds of censorship, pressure on social media platforms by the same governments and by aligned corporate interests has started to have an influence already:
Examples of Suppression
Facebook and YouTube have recently tweaked algorithms or adopted new systems that push down independent media in favour of ‘trusted’ news sources like CNN, NBC, Fox News, MSNBC, the BBC and the rest of the mainstream media. Home of the journalists that brought you the Iraq war, skewed coverage of the Syrian conflict and the Skripal poisoning and continue on the whole to be mere mouthpieces of corporate and state power.
It has already been shown that America, at least, is an oligarchy and now the threat of those same oligarchs being given control of the news media is a stark reality that must be resisted.
Twitter notably admitted suppressing tweets during the 2016 US election which referenced leaked emails from Hillary Clinton’s campaign chair, John Podesta, despite the fact that this was legitimate real news showing evidence of corruption.
The biggest platform, Facebook, has also admitted recently that it deleted accounts at the direction of the US and Israeli governments, allowing the Isreali state the ability to censor the Facebook posts of Palestinian activists with impunity.
When it comes to state power, what constitutes fake news is simply anything that runs counter to their carefully manufactured narrative.
The Genie is Out of the Bottle
The genie is out of the bottle and the ship has sailed; there is fake news in circulation, governments produce propaganda parroted by news organisations financed by the same moneyed class that donate to the politicians, journalists lie and companies pay scientists to produce pseudo-science and economists to produce misleading studies in order to increase profits or protect their brand. These are the facts of modern life.
Another fact is that there is nothing that can be done to prevent this without sacrificing free speech and a free press. Turning our press and social media platforms into an echo-chamber of state-approved news and opinion is simply Orwellian and not to be desired by anyone no matter where they lie on the political spectrum.
A Free Press Above All
There is only one answer to the potential problem of fake news and propaganda alike: a truly free press and a free and uncensored internet where no platforms are favoured over others, regardless of their resources.
For once, the Government should do what they often say they want to do and let the market decide. Some people will inevitably be sucked in by ludicrous stories and conspiracy theories, but that is a price worth paying for the maintenance of our freedom of expression.