Social media and the propagation of ignorance

Sonia Ambrosio –
soniambrosio@gmail.com –

Is there a reason to be honest? Everybody lies for whatever reason. With little white lies or not, we believe we are honest. Pinocchio is everywhere in society: from the corporate world to politicians, to the street sellers and, spouses.
Telling the truth is not easy. People don’t like to hear it. Or prefer to ignore it. Okay, there are certain circumstances that might be better to lie than to tell the truth. It all boils down to being honest — or is it?
Sissela Bok, an ethicist at Harvard University, has the opinion that lying is easier compared to other ways of gaining power. Sometimes people lie to inflate their image, or when applying for a promotion, for economic, or political advantages among other reasons.
The problem goes beyond lying. It swells to people’s ignorance. The lack of basic information or the manipulation of information is one of the main points for such ignorance. Examples are the Brexit voting and the US election in 2016. Ignorance is becoming a serious problem in society.
People, generally, are not aware of the extent to which they are misinformed. In the new information environment, the digital and online media are making disinformation circulating quickly. Unfortunately, we are prone to accepting lies that affirm our worldview. The point is: the simpler and more obvious a lie is, the more people engage emotionally — meaning we pay attention to it.
Made-up stories, misleading statistics and ignoring relevant history can be confusing and damaging. Just have a glance at the advertising industry. Some of the examples of misleading commercials claiming ‘guaranteed results’, ‘clinical studies show’, or ‘make you smarter’ only prove how foolish we can be. People have a tendency to ditch the facts first.
According to Robert Proctor, a historian at Stanford University, we live in a golden age of ignorance. Proctor coined the word agnotology while studying the tobacco industry conspiracy to fabricate doubt about the cancer risks of tobacco use. Agnotology is the study of the deliberate propagation of ignorance.
David Dunning, from Cornell University, who also studies ignorance, has the opinion that the Internet is helping propagate ignorance — as it is a place where everyone has a chance to be their own expert. For Dunning, modern technology and social media have brought people all around the world together, but it has also helped create a generation of people who think they know everything.
The worst is when media people spread their own ignorance — they can do more harm than good. That is true when they perceive themselves more knowledgeable than they actually are — and don’t check the facts. It is assumed that when we are fed falsehoods by people we trust or people who have power and status, it is easier to accept their pieces of evidence, even if manipulated. An example was the US swimmer Ryan Lochte’s claim he had been robbed at gunpoint during the Rio Olympic games. He lied to cover up bad behaviour.
But lying is not a phenomenon that started in 2016. It has a long history. We can go back to the Cold War era. An interesting read is a document titled ‘Soviet Subversion, Disinformation and Propaganda: How the West Fought Against it — An Analytic History, with Lessons for the Present’, published by the London School of Economics and Political Science in 2017.
Indeed, lessons can be learned. But these days, the fragmentation of news sources has created a world in which lies and rumour are spread with alarming speed.
We are reaching a point in which facts are complicated and boring while lies are simple and exciting — with the view that mass medium is based on attention, not the truth. However, facts still matter to debates about health, social wellbeing, economics and corruption. But when lies make a system dysfunctional, well, its results can feed alienation and lack of trust.