Over the last few hundred years, many different institutions and groups have evolved in society that use soft power, influence and appeal, to shape the opinions and actions of individuals. These groups include religion, business, science, government, political parties, myth/entertainment, education systems, the local community/village, family, and friends. Prior to the Internet, they all existed in some form, and all understood the other as participants in the information landscape, and the “marketplace” of ideas.
Figure 1. A new generation of unfiltered information
When the Internet first emerged in cultural consciousness, there was this idea that somehow it was a better printing press. That turned out to wildly underestimate the impact. The Internet did not create a better printing press, the Internet turned us all into printing presses, and what we print is being monetized. If not by us, then by some other entity.
The result of us all being prosumers (producers and consumers of information) is that there is now a wide range of new information sources, acting in society, outside of the control of traditional information management processes. Information is coming from many new sources, and it is unfiltered. A dramatic increase in unfiltered information has numerous impacts. Information consumers are losing faith in the efficacy of information, information consumers are seeing information they have not seen before (a video camera on every street corner), traditional institutions are concerned about their lack of information control (who wins in the new market place of ideas), and information technology is being used for manipulative purposes (domestic and international).
There is a larger context in which the unfiltered chaos of a post-Internet world cohabits. That is the context of authoritarian nations that filter information from outside their country, and tightly control information inside the country. The prosumer in the closed / centralized authoritarian system does not face the same information chaos as the prosumer in open / distributed systems, but they also may not have the same opportunities. Which approach is better in the long run is a TBD according to some, not a subject of this article. There are certainly numerous commentators that are wondering if the closed / centralized approach is not better, emphasized by the long period of growth in countries like China.
Geopolitics has for sometime classified power as hard or soft. Hard being the power of force through institutions like the military, and soft being influence and appeal. Since at least 2017, a new term has emerged, “sharp” power. Sharp power is the idea that governments, through control of universities, media, and culture, maintain the dialog about and presentation of themselves domestically, and having mastered that skill, then seek to manipulate the open information spaces of other countries/societies to exert their influence abroad / globally. Figure 2. depicts the asymmetric nature of sharp power, little comes in, manipulation goes out, and the domestic narrative is controlled.
While open societies are still learning more about sharp power, in America, there is already concern that the 2016 Presidential election was influenced by sharp power emanating from Russia and other authoritarian countries, and because America has not yet mastered how to shut it down, it may play a role in the 2020 election as well; a role that undermines the authority and mandate of an election winner, deepening a crisis of faith in public institutions, and potentially resulting in civil unrest. Who knows what impact the perceived illegitimacy of the 2016 election maybe having on current civil unrest – there are many factors of course including unemployment, a global pandemic, and incendiary events.
In computer networks, there is a function called access control lists (ACLs), they match information with patterns, and then take action. ACLs, and other mechanisms, help to filter unwanted and dangerous traffic. Mechanisms such as this also play a role in protecting the control plane from attacks that would impact the operation of the entire network.
Filtering mechanisms have not been developed as yet for the myriad of new information sources, and they proliferate so fast, in terms of both applications and websites, that traditional congressional regulation and executive agency oversight may not be able to keep pace. In the vacuum of information management / hygiene practices, individuals are likely to apply their own heuristics to information – for example trusting information from sources that express the same values as them. The impact of such heuristics, on constructive / productive exchange of information, is also a topic of conversation within the current information chaos.
What information to receive, what information to trust, the roles and responsibilities of different actors, are all TBD. Social media maybe targets of domestic and international manipulation because they have so many eyeballs on them, and therefore, it is an efficient way to distribute (mis)information.
In future articles, the roles and responsibilities of different actors, some of the foundations of the current information chaos, and other related topics will be discussed.