The need for ethics in a post-truth world

This is a guest post originally published on LinkedIn by Richard Stephenson, CEO of YUDU

Today we are all publishers. We can blog, tweet and offer our opinions on any subject that grabs us. We can also re-tweet other people’s work with a click or tap of a button. The amazing power to communicate to vast audiences that was once in the hands of a professional class is now available to all. The workers have taken over the means of publication (to misquote Marx!).

There are few filters applied to our posts and that is hugely liberating. You need only to look at repressive regimes to appreciate the fear and frustrations of censorship. The right to express views, even if they offend, is the bedrock of liberal western democracies but we are beginning to realise the limits and dangers of this, which may mean a rethink.

30 years ago I remember preaching to people about how the positive power of international television news was helping us to understand the point of view of others. This, I argued, would foster tolerance and avoid the wars so often started by non-democratic regimes using crude but effective propaganda through a controlled media. When the internet took off the argument was reinforced but of course my thinking was based on the old model of media.

The democratisation of story dissemination was first thought to be liberating, even though it was accepted that there would be an inevitable rise of unqualified facts and fake news. The thinking was that this would remain background noise if it was solely the preserve of individuals, but fake news has now been refashioned into a tool by the old guard propagandists who for so long looked on in horror as the free internet neutered their playbook of total control.

They have now realised they can create and disseminate so many versions of a story that the reader can no longer be sure of the truth. There is no need for “a good day to bury bad news”; they just need to create multiple stories to cast doubt, and with social media they have the perfect tool.

Back in the old days the KGB went to great lengths to create credible and authentic breadcrumb trails for their fake stories but today, why bother? A powerful but fake story can spread across social media so fast that nobody has time to check its history. With a strategically timed release just before a key event, opinions and democratic outcomes can be irrevocably altered. It really does not matter if the fake news is discredited later: the deed is done. We do not yet have a remedy in place to deal with this new phenomenon and our politicians, who were educated in a print era, do not fully grasp the games that are being played.

So what role does ethics play in all this? There is an ethical fringe where some people can be awakened to the implications of a story but most people using the internet tend to remain outside an ethical code, mainly due to lack of thought rather than by design. There is now a real need for a movement to explain the responsibility that should go hand in hand with the freedom to publish. Social media has to be used as a tool to accelerate education as conventional methods simply take too long. We need people other than politicians to take the lead, people who are respected in their particular spheres, such as technologists, business leaders, academics, rappers, artists, writers, religious leaders and those with huge followers on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Collectively we can use social media to educate people to the Great Game being played and to understand that spreading fake facts and false stories damages lives, communities and the fabric of civilised society. Let’s get the workers to put ethics back into publishing.

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