Sunday, October 13, 2019

Tainted Glass

Ignorance can be bliss but, sometimes and depending on the circumstances, ignorance could be debilitating. Earlier this year, a television documentary explored the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe. Survey results revealed that a third of respondents in seven countries were unaware of the death camps strewn across German-occupied Europe three-quarters of a century ago. In the US, they discovered that two-thirds of American students were clueless about the Holocaust perpetrated by the Nazis.

Recoiling from WW2 crimes against humanity, well-meaning people everywhere periodically echoed the mantra “Never Again.” Yet, unconscionably, we have since had attempted genocide in Cambodia and Rwanda. For history not to keep repeating itself, it raises the question of how well this all-important subject is being taught in schools. Parsing that statement, it may be more pertinent to ask why certain fields of study are not mandatory in junior and high school education. For instance, to convey the full horror of not only fascism but other variants of totalitarianism, it would be helpful if students are exposed to the Communist ideology, and learn why tens of millions perished in Soviet gulags and Chinese labour camps.

Even when history is officially sanctioned, off and on it is beamed through tainted glass. A case in point is the Japanese establishment. As an occupying force in China and Korea before and during WW2, Japanese textbooks have continuously, and unapologetically, played down the transgressions of the Imperial Japanese Army. Decades on, the country’s distorted version of history has soured diplomatic relations and raised tensions with its neighbours.

Unfortunately for state actors, the Internet as a platform has completely transformed how information is generated and consumed. Worldwide, malicious intrusion by trolls and cyberterrorists has grown unbounded but, ironically, nations that undermine cybersecurity are equally susceptible to hacking. Despite this, the volume, variety and velocity of data traffic in cyberspace is increasing exponentially, to such an extent that even repressive governments struggle to retain control.

State censorship is not a new phenomenon. Before the invention of the printing press in the 15th century, church authorities had a virtual lock on the dissemination of information. The religious manuscripts in circulation, mostly hand-copied by monks, were ultimately swamped by secular books that would shape public opinion in unimaginable ways. With the genie out of the bottle, the ability of power centres to control the creation and propagation of information became ever more difficult. Two other inflection points coincided with the invention of the radio and television, both of which authorities feared would facilitate the spread of false information.  

Over time, the perceived threats posed by the printing press, radio and television were no less disorienting than those that we are experiencing today. All the anxiety about fake news and alternative facts feed into the narrative espoused by illiberal politicians and populists who seek to sow dissonance and disunity. While grown-ups are no less vulnerable, the concern persists about the accuracy of what highly impressionable youngsters are being exposed to online and offline. In light of the deluge of contradictory and ideologically-tainted information being trafficked on news channels and social media platforms, it is easy to be pessimistic about the impact this must be having globally. Is such despair warranted? Yes and No.

Yes, because non-democratic forces and unscrupulous politicians will not relent from promoting a refracted worldview, as long as it boosts their hold on power. In democratic circles, sadly it seems as though there are few adults left in politics. At a time when democratic institutions and liberal principles are under attack, leaders with a poor grasp of history, and who dismiss the minutiae of statecraft, are conducting governance and diplomacy by Twitter! Where cool heads are needed, those who should know better lie routinely and matter-of-factly, while fuelling malign conspiracy theories. In bygone years, when viral was a simple biological term, such (mis)behaviour would have been ridiculed and marginalised by raised voices from both sides of the political divide. These days, when unfiltered posts can be shared instantly by billions, the risk of misunderstanding and misinterpretation is sky high. For all our sakes, we must hope that hair-trigger miscalculations do not expose us all to maximum peril in a world brimming with nuclear warheads.

No, because if we survive the aforementioned apocalyptic scenario, order might eventually supplant the current chaos. Disinformation, in concert with oversaturation, is a serious problem; however, this also provides an opportunity for innovators. That is part of the genius of free societies whereby new markets emerge under the most unlikely circumstances. Soon, we should expect a market for accurate or more objective information to emerge, once a critical mass decides to seek refuge from the ongoing assault on common sense.

From school textbooks to news sources, wily entrepreneurs will most likely launch trusted, well-researched, and expertly curated platforms that would eventually gain broad recognition. That may not completely dislodge dangerous holdouts, such as Holocaust deniers, hate-mongers and pernicious YouTube polemicists, from trying to poison the well. In the event, it would be down to individuals to discern truth from fiction. Hopefully, the future will inspire less sullied, more transcendent mindset in people that will help to separate the wheat from shiploads of information chaff.  


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