They aren’t a cheery group at the World Economic Forum. Their Global Risks 2013 report takes a look, amongst other things, at what risks digital can bring, and it’s all doom and gloom. Of course, a report about risks should quite naturally talk about risks, but a canny analyst always remembers to balance up risks against rewards, and the rewards get mostly neglected.
As a result their report warns that,
While the benefits of our hyperconnected communication systems are undisputed, they could potentially enable the viral spread of information that is either intentionally or unintentionally misleading or provocative. Imagine a real-world example of shouting “fire!” in a crowded theatre. In a virtual equivalent, damage can be done by rapid spread of misinformation even when correct information follows quickly. Are there ways for generators and consumers of social media to develop an ethos of responsibility and healthy scepticism to mitigate the risk of digital wildfires?
The problem with that? It’s quite simple: our hyperconnected communications systems allow truth to spread quickly just as it lets hoaxes.
Think of the London riots last year, for example. Hoax stories such as the claim that animals from London Zoo had been released and were roaming the streets certainly spread swiftly round the world, but then so too did the rebuttals.
In fact, the breadth of information available online often makes rebuttal research far quicker than in the old days, and there are great resources available to unmask hoaxes such as Snopes.com.
So yes, it is still true that it is a struggle for truth to move at the speed of falsehood. That isn’t new; what is new is how much easier and quicker it is for the sceptical to check and rebut.