Opinion-Commentary
What Should We Do About Disinformation?

What Should We Do About Disinformation?

Terry Mockler



It is a cliche, to say that civilization presents us with more questions than answers. Then what are the stakes in not mentioning a fact? And to quote educator Neil Postman “Whose problem is it?” It appears that nothing that we do or say can be considered neutral. Neutrality is a curse in discourse.

“In “Building a Bridge to the 18th Century,” Neil Postman lays out his 6 questions to ask of new technologies. Postman’s questions do not demand answers, but rather consideration.”- Librarian Shipwreck

Answering Postman’s questions while taking a stance and defending the truth of time and formulas, over raw power might do more to stave off disinformation than anything else. It also generates news.

According to historian Harold Innis, “a medium” was a less constrained descriptor for human artifacts than technology. Technology suggested immediacy as power and not the permanency of time and knowledge, such as encyclopedic knowledge offers. In this way, Wikipedia can help combat disinformation but it comes at a price-The centralization of knowledge.

Terry Mockler




Postman’s Six Rules for Evaluating a Medium.

1. “What is the problem to which this technology is the solution?”

2. “Whose problem is it?”

3. “Which people and what institutions might be most seriously harmed by a technological solution?” 

4. “What new problems might it create because we have solved this problem?”

5. “What sort of people and institutions might acquire special economic and political power because of technological change?”

6. “What changes in language are being enforced by new technologies? And what is being gained and lost by such changes? ”

I was a high school teacher who got handed down the gospel from other teachers via their students. Usually, in middle school, regarding Wikipedia and its potential for disinformation on a vast scale. They argued that it was never factual. It would always be biased because anybody could write there. Despite a legion of editors who inevitably moderated fights over authenticity.”

Terry Mockler

John Lockes’ Bias

I was teaching the “Introduction to the US Government” civics course using a McGraw-Hill textbook called “Magruders US Government.” A book, written in 1917 and updated by law every six years, that 80% of American high schoolers are estimated to have used. The textbook featured a section on Enlightenment ideas in the American Constitution. It focused on one individual, in particular, John Locke whose ideas were key. There were only two brief tracts that he wrote, and they seemed deliberately vague. I was frustrated because it seemed to explain very little. I decided to consult the entry on John Locke on Wikipedias’ site. There I discovered Lockes’ real motivation. Locke and a few other men controlled 74% of the global slave trade through a corporation called the Royal Africa Company. These facts were verifiable by reference links in the reference section at the bottom of the wiki page.

“Lockes’ views on slavery were multifaceted and complex. Although he wrote against slavery in general, Locke was an investor and beneficiary of the slave-trading Royal Africa Company. In addition, while secretary to the Earl of Shaftesbury, Locke participated in drafting the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina, which established a quasi-feudal aristocracy and gave Carolinian planters absolute power over their enslaved chattel property; the constitutions pledged that “every freeman of Carolina shall have absolute power and authority over his negro slaves” –

Wikipedia

Reference:
https://www.google.com/books/edition/Freedom_s_Debt/8osqAgAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&pg=PA11&printsec=frontcover

Magruders’ backgrounder can be found here:

https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED381467.pdf

I was caught up in this very controversy myself once. Much to my amazement, I discovered that Wikipedia only had a stub for an article on media philosopher Marshall McLuhan. I began to write an essay like Wikipedia entry in my spare time without paying mind to who might read it. Because I felt nobody even knew it was there. Dr. Liss Jeffries author of “The Heat and the Light -A reappraisal of Marshall McLuhan.” told the editors to take it off, and she would send in an army of her assistants to clean it up. The Wikipedia editors told me that my work was too speculative and thus unsuitable for their website. I thought fair enough. But I was feeling smug because I had beaten them to the stub. But I had merely staked my claim on the information frontier only to have my claim jumped. Ironically, McLuhan, while active, was considered so cryptic and deemed to an interloper in other peoples’ disciplines, that graduate schools banned citing his work in any North American graduate theses regardless of the topic. At least until Jeffries’s unpublished Ph.D. thesis appeared in 1998.

“A media practitioner more than an academic, unfortunately, Liss never found time to convert her McGill Ph.D. dissertation, “The Heat and the Light of Marshall McLuhan: A 1990s Reappraisal.” (1998), into a book. However, an essay offers a précis of her thesis, The Heat & the Light: Towards a Reassessment of the Contribution of H. Marshall McLuhan (1989).” – Alex Kuskis

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales launches Wikitribune, a large-scale attempt to combat fake news. The crowd-funded news platform aims to combat fake news by combining professional journalism with volunteer fact checking: “news by the people and for the people.” NIEMAN LAB

According to Nieman Labs, the failure of both WIkitribune and Wiki News has led to redefining/rebranding Wikipedia as a novel genre of “collaborative journalism.” Instead of an encyclopedia. 

“Lih said that Wikipedia’s formulaic style and continuous format are more conducive to collaborative writing projects than the discrete articles found on Wikinews.”

Even though for the reasons mentioned in these two Neiman Labs reports Wikipedia, scuttled its efforts to curb disinformation via wiki tribune and to compete with mainstream media with wiki news, Twitter launched its version of collaborative fact-checking in January of 2021. It is called birdwatch and is still in beta. https://twitter.com/i/birdwatch.

But Lih’s assertion is a provocative one. Wikipedia has come a long way from its humble origins. As has journalism since Emile Zola and Charles Darwin made it scientific. Look at the entry on Covid-19 for example. It is a well-documented effort to inform using verifiable facts and science.

Twitter and Facebook have also banned Donald Trump from their sites because of his biases. But the First Amendment should have protected him because Americans believe that the bad drives out the good as did John Locke. We may lose our First Amendment rights and “learn to love our captivity” as Aldous Huxley proposed in his novel “Brave New World.” Neil Postman mentions him in his introduction to “Amusing Ourselves to Death.” However dismal the thought might be, Wikipedia might be the price we pay for our revolution in communication that has made so much unverifiable information available.


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