From the dawn of the printing press to the rise of the internet, technology has always shaped the truth. Its contribution has rarely been neutral. While the printing press planted the seeds of Western civilization, it also amplified some voices and muted many others. Freedom of the press, as A.J. Liebling once famously wrote, became “limited to those who own one.”
When it comes to today’s mediaverse, technology has a pronounced light and dark side. Its sweeping influence often lies hidden behind our clicks, with our data actively harvested, monetized and even weaponized. Of course, the 2016 U.S. presidential election catapulted this dark side of technology to the forefront. Through the Cambridge Analytica scandal, for instance, we saw firsthand how, in our pursuit of understanding this world through social media, of sharing our lives, likes and preferences, technology can be used against us.
And while we can and should express great alarm at these dark capabilities, so, too, does technology show us a powerful side of good, of light. Journalists can now use artificial intelligence to comb through highly complex data sets (e.g. from the Panama Papers) or use crowd-sourced videos, photos and satellite imagery to reconstruct the truth. In this way, technology enables entirely new avenues of discovery and understanding.
As it has always done, technology actively sculpts our truths. And so, our role as producers and consumers of media is to be as educated as we can about its full and complex societal role. To that end, the Santa Fe Council on International Relations is convening its second annual Journalism under Fire conference Nov. 14 and 15. This year, the conference asks this very simple yet wonderfully complex question: How does technology shape the truth?
As the conference organizer, I asked a selection of our coming speakers for their views on both the light and dark side of technology in shaping those collective truths.
The dark side
Malachy Browne, a senior producer at the New York Times specializing in visual investigations, declares that “Technology has weaponized an information disorder that has long existed, and personalized it. Major tech companies are incentivized to profile us, understand us, and trigger our emotional impulses.” Echoing this, professor Braden Allenby of Arizona State University told me, “Technology has resulted in a tsunami of information, for which neither individuals nor their institutions are adequately prepared. The result is a profound detachment of rationality from underlying facts, and a retreat to simple and more tribal narratives. This isn’t so much a single impact as a foundational historic shift.”
Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Dana Priest of the Washington Post returns to Santa Fe again this year. On this topic of social media, she told me, “Social media companies gave users a free platform to reach millions; but they also manipulate and spy on those users in ways we don’t realize and haven’t clearly agreed to. Money hijacked the idealism of connecting the world years ago, and they will not give it up without a fight.”
Alexa Koenig, the executive director of the Human Rights Center at the University of California, Berkeley, points instead to the dangers of algorithms curating information for users, “providing them with information that reinforces (as opposed to challenges) their world view, or that emphasizes salacious material over fact-based information. This means that the bubbles of information around us are hardening, creating an even more rigid barrier between us and those who don’t share our opinions and circles of information. The lack of shared facts can make it very difficult for a democracy to function.”
For professor Janet Steele of George Washington University, “The playing field is asymmetrical, and media literacy campaigns seem like a pallid response to disinformation that is disseminated by bots and amplified by ‘influencers,’ ‘buzzers’ and ‘cyber-troopers.’ The dilemma is that for liberal democracies, what is there to rely on other than the conviction that the truth will ultimately win out?”
The light side
Pulitzer Prize winner Matthew Rosenberg of the New York Times points to how the internet has become “An incredible force multiplier. Records that once could only be read by taking a trip down to city hall or the local courthouse can now be pulled up online. That’s a huge boon for reporters, giving us a lot more time to focus on other reporting and going deeper on stories. And we now have metrics that tell us pretty clearly that readers will engage with deeply reported stories, even long ones.”
Sam Gregory, of the WITNESS program studying deep fakes and other artificial intelligence issues, tells me that, “We shouldn’t lose sight of the tremendous power of social media and mobile technology in the hands of communities who never had a loud voice or the media and power on their side — their videos are the raw material of contemporary accountability, and of ensuring that a broader range of real experiences of communities fighting injustice get seen.”
Koenig echoes this by remarking, “The spread of smartphones and the rise of social media is empowering fact-finders from all over the world to ‘access’ crises that are physically inaccessible — whether for security or diplomatic reasons — and share information about those crises with those in a position to do something about it.”
This creation of raw data, of different perspectives, creates, for Malachy Browne, “a trove of documentary evidence that can help us deconstruct an event and get to the truth of it.”
So exactly how does technology shape our truth? Join the Santa Fe Council on International Relations on Nov. 14 and 15 to discover that for yourself. Some tickets remain at www.sfcir.org.
Sandy Campbell is executive director of the Santa Fe Council on International Relations.