18 September 2016: It was a pleasure speaking at the Václav Havel Library in Prague on the state of our media, the relativization of truth in a post-fact world, and (my favourite topic) the dangers of Russian disinformation. The full video of the panel discussion in which I partook is available below; the crux of my argument begins at 27:07.
The implicit theme of this panel is the growing circulation and influence of Russian disinformation in Western media and on the internet. My argument, however, is that Russia’s disinformation campaign is simply one instantiation of the much broader problem of misinformation that has been exacerbated by the digital age. True, the digital revolution has democratised the production and distribution of information to a degree unprecedented in human history, but in doing so, it has institutionalised a treacherous environment where anyone can say anything, virtually without regulation, and reach a global audience in seconds. There is now much more bad information available for public consumption than ever before in history, and cognitively, in terms of our ability to correctly distinguish between reliable and unreliable information, we have not yet caught up to the new times. The decline of media ‘gatekeepers’ in the transition to digital has led to pollution of the information space, in which anyone can propagate their own version of truth and reality, facts are politicized, and evidence-based consensus on issues of public importance is increasingly difficult to establish. The rise of this so-called ‘post-fact world’ and the ideological polarization that follows from it has devastating implications for democracy. Why? Because democracy depends on civic cohesion and common values to succeed.
To my mind, the lack of media literacy amongst our voting populations (in Europe and America alike) should be understood and treated as a public health crisis. Indeed, what else should we call our concern about the growing social fragmentation and civic strife within our societies? I daresay the well-being and resiliency of our democratic order is the most exigent public health issue there is…
Keynote: Brian Whitmore, senior Russia analyst and author of The Power Vertical, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
Moderator: Michael Žantovský, director, Václav Havel Library
– Monika Richter, University of Oxford
– Jindřich Šídlo, journalist, Seznam.cz
– Ivana Smolenová, Prague Security Studies Institute
– Kristina Potapova, Martens Centre
The conference was a joint production of the Václav Havel Library, Aspen Institute Prague and the Charles University Centre for the Study of Political Philosophy, Ethics and Religion, with support from the Oxford Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.