You would think we should have been enlightened by the past few decades of the Knowledge Age, so why do people seem badly misinformed, confused, emotional and unreasonable? Many do not believe in evolution, climate change, vaccination and other established science.
Right-wing Americans have accepted conspiracy theories like Qanon and lies about how the 2020 US presidential election was “stolen.” Roughly 70 percent of Internet users think fake news causes doubt and confusion, with social media the least trusted news source worldwide. And 83% of people believe disinformation negatively affects their country’s politics.  Norman Lear, the famous TV producer, said: “We just may be the most-informed, yet least self-aware people in history,”  and Senator Ben Sasse worried, “We are living in an America of perpetual adolescence.” 
Extensive studies confirm that attitudes, beliefs and even rational decisions are largely shaped by a variety of well-known biases, political party allegiance, and other extraneous factors. Even hard-nosed business people admit that bias in decision-making is a major problem. These irrational tendencies explain why demagogues successfully use the lure of self-serving fantasies that blind people to the truth and mobilize them into violence.
This dilemma poses one of the great ironies of our time. The digital revolution has created a wealth of knowledge that is almost infinite. The smartphone alone has made the world’s store of information available at the touch of a finger. There is no shortage of knowledge, but its power is badly limited. Although the world is covered with an abundance of communication, it is not a very happy place. Just as the Gutenberg printing press unleashed a flood of information that led to disruptive change, brutal conflict and the Protestant Reformation, this deluge of digital knowledge has brought a “post-factual” wave of nonsense, fake news and conspiracy theories that pose global threats.
“Mis/DisInformation” includes misinformation (honest errors) and disinformation (intended to deceive). There is a constant stream of mistakes, distortions, false news, and endless other information corruption in public media. Facebook, Twitter and other social media giants have faced mounting criticism for allowing inflammatory and even violent traffic to spread dangerous falsehoods. Even where care is taken to avoid mistakes, ethical behavior is hard to enforce. Revelations of widespread surveillance by the US National Security Agency (NSA) and other intelligence organizations have brought demands for public exposure of data-gathering practices. Transparency in government is often promised but seldom delivered. In parts of the world, rampant corruption is taken for granted.
Here are some major sources of Mis/DisInformation:
It does not help that large parts of the public embrace this confusion out of sheer perversity. TV and the Internet have produced what has been called “the dumbest generation” with a brazen disregard for books and reading, often favoring religious and political beliefs.  Following are choice bits of willful ignorance in the US and other modern nations.
- The US ranks near the bottom of nations whose citizens believe in evolution, with less than 40 percent saying they accept the science. 
- Two-thirds cannot name the three branches of government. 
- Half of Trump voters believe President Obama was born in Kenya. 
- Thirty percent of people think cloud computing involves actual clouds.
- Twenty-five percent don’t know the Earth revolves around the Sun.
- Fewer than half know that humans evolved from primitive species.
- Two-thirds of undergraduate students score above average on narcissism personality tests, up 30 percent from 1982.
Despite a drive to increased openness, corporate secrecy and cover-ups remain common. In the US, whistle-blowing events have increased, and SEC actions against public companies hit an all-time high. (Bloomberg, Feb 14, 2017)
In many countries, corruption remains a major problem. In India, the most corrupt country in Asia, almost 70 percent of the population accessing public services report having paid a bribe to do so. (Forbes, Mar 8, 2017)
Fake News Proliferating
Intentionally false articles and slanted reporting have proliferated in recent years. US intelligence agencies found a widespread Russian program of fake news and disinformation, although they are unsure of the impact. Fake news imposes real social costs and serves to destabilize society. (Journal of Economic Perspectives, Spring 2017)
Deep Fakes Are Hard to Detect
Increasingly sophisticated machine learning can create, often in real-time, convincing but fake audio and video. While being developed, tools to guarantee the authenticity of a given video or audio clip are lagging behind. (MIT Technology Review, May 1, 2017)
The advent of today’s “post-factual world” carries the problem to an extreme by forcing us to sort through fake news and conspiracy theories. An entire cottage industry has sprung up to produce books titled “Assault on intelligence,” “The death of truth,” “A world without facts,” “The death of expertise” and “Truth decay.” 
Governments and Corporations Responding
Throughout Western democracies, governments are requiring disclosure of corporate information to ensure ethical dealings. Many shareholders want even more.
DARPA Working to Spot Fake Media
With machine learning algorithms becoming adept at generating believable fake audiovisual content, it’s important to be able to detect the fakes. To that end, DARPA has launched a project aiming at catching the so-called “deep fakes”. (MIT Technology Review, May 23, 2018)
Investors in growing numbers are demanding greater transparency from corporate boards and executives in matters of compensation, company operations, and political contributions.
Social Media Companies Responding to Fake News
In response to concerns about fake news’ impact on society and even election results, organizations are taking further steps to prevent fake news from spreading. Facebook, for example, has created algorithms that automatically flag suspicious stories, are then sent to fact checkers. If shown to be false news, the company attempts to limit their spread across the social network. (Advertising Age, Aug 3, 2017)
Crises Forcing Corporations to Act
Recent corporate scandals have highlighted the need for greater transparency in business, recruiting even top executives to the cause.
Corporate scandals ranging from dishonest mortgage practices (Bank of America, et. al) to bribery in Mexico (Walmart) and fixing of LIBOR trading (at least 10 multinational banking firms) have brought growing demands for business transparency. So have legitimate but largely hidden activities such as political contributions. (Inc, Jul 8, 2016)
Executives Endorse Ethics
A survey of business executives in 30 countries found that 79% believe their companies have an ethical duty to fight corruption. Executives said the most effective anti-corruption tool was the transparency enforced by investigative journalism. (Institute for Global Ethics, Jul 8, 2016)
 “Norman Lear calls for leap of faith,” The New Leaders (May/June 1993)
 Ben Sasse, The Vanishing American Adult (St. Martin’s, 2017)
 Elizabeth Kolbert, “Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds” (The New Yorker, Feb 27, 2017). Yuval Harari, People have limited knowledge. What’s the remedy? Nobody knows,” (New York Times, Apr 18, 2017)
 Tobias Beer et al., “The Business Logic in Debiasing” (McKinsey, May 2017)
 Harari, “Why Fiction Trumps Truth,” (The New York Times, May 24, 2019)
 Statistica (June 16, 2021); Latterly (2021); Mark Bauerian, The Dumbest Generation (New York: Penguin, 2008)
 Ker Than, “US Lags … Acceptance of Evolution” (Live Science, Aug 11, 2006)
 Susan Jacoby, The Age of American Unreason (New York: Pantheon, 2008)
 Catherine Rampell, “Americans … believe crazy, wrong things,” Washington Post (Dec 28, 20015)
 Mark Morford, “Human stupidity is destroying the world,” alternet (Mar 20, 2013)
 John Amato, “25% of Americans don’t know the Earth revolves around the Sun,” National Science Foundation (Feb 25, 2014)
 Bauerian, Op. Cit. The Dunning-Kruger effect is a well-established phenomenon in which those who know little actually believe they know more than others. Angela Fritz, “What’s Behind the Confidence of the Incompetent?” (Washington Post, Jan 7, 2019)
 Hayden, The Assault on Intelligence (New York: Penguin, 2018) Anne Applebaum, “A world without facts,” Washington Post (May 20, 2018) Tom Nichols, The Death of Expertise (New York: Oxford, 2018) Jennifer Kavanagh and Michael Rich, Truth Decay, (Santa Monica: The Rand Corporation, 2018) Adrian Chen, “The fake news fallacy,“ The New Yorker (Sep 4, 2017) George Will, “The high cost of cheap speech,” Washington Post (Sep 21, 2017)
My sense is that the platform company business model is the problem. Here is my rationale.
Section 230 (https://www.eff.org/issues/cda230) is being used by platform companies like FaceBook, Twitter, etc., to evade responsibility for curation and editing information. Consequently, we find ourselves plagued (advisedly chosen word) by claims of 1st Amendment support for any idea, thought or opinion, whether or not supported by any evidence, advanced by people with an ax to grind, an ideology to push or a belief system to maintain. When these ideas are either promulgated by elected officials or famous people, they tend to carry more weight than they would typically and there is little the public can do to mitigate their effect.
Companies that are supported by advertising could and should be regulated like advertising companies. Facebook, Google, Twitter, et al fall into this category for the most part. Others that push ideology and/or propaganda (Fox News a lot of the time, CNN some of the time) should be regulated as newspapers or entertainment companies and hence not permitted to use the word “news” in their name.
The platform companies could provide a service that curates and edits much like newspapers, et al are mandated to which could start to separate out the fact from fiction world in which we find ourselves currently. However, I don’t see them doing that voluntarily.
The key to understanding this whole issue is an understanding of what a platform company is. It is a 3-legged stool of technology (the infrastructure), data (knowledge about users, subscribers and their likes and dislikes, etc) and community (where folks feel they belong and resemble others in the same group). The key to a platform company’s success is the “network effect” i.e., people generating buzz and telling others about it. Going viral is the most obvious example of the network effect. In order to keep people engaged and enhance the network effect, content needs to be more and more edgy, more and more titillating, more and more outrageous.
Until we understand that the business model is the problem things will only get worse.
I think your proposal to address misinformation and disinformation is an excellent idea. I guess there have always been snake oil sellers but now they have the communication means to reach millions anonymously. While the solution escapes me, I am hoping your experts will have some idea of how a trusted “fact-checker” system could be launched. Perhaps that is the next version of Techcast?
Expert Survey Results
We are tentatively planning to invite estimates on how bad Mis/DisInformation is likely to get, and how well various solutions are likely to relieve Mis/DisInformation. Here are some tentative questions:
- How serious is the Mid/DisInformation problem now?
- How effective would it be to have media companies self-manage their content using committees? (like Facebook’s committee of experts)
- How about Federal regulation of media companies?
- How effective would it be to encourage a social ethic of “Seeking Truth”?
- Strong national leadership?
- How about AI systems that automatically detect and remove inaccurate content?
- Can you suggest other solutions?
- How serious is the Mid/DisInformation problem likely to be in 2030?
Please offer what you think would be good questions to answer