IMAGE: Stuart Hampton — Pixabay (CC0)

Too stupid to use the internet?

A recent poll by Gallup and the Knight Foundation shows that 85% of Americans think social networks are not doing enough to combat fake news, with most people saying Facebook and others must take responsibility for the veracity of the content they publish.

As I have said on numerous occasions, fake news is not the problem of social platforms, but instead one rooted in the inability of many people to develop and use critical thinking. The absence of critical thinking is what leads somebody to believe something because they saw it on Facebook or WhatsApp or because it was the first result that came up on Google, in the same way that the need for approval or recognition then leads them to share it with their friends. In practice, what a very high percentage of Americans are saying is, “we’re too stupid to use the internet, and we want social networks to protect us”.

The problem isn’t fake news as such, and the social networks can’t protect people from themselves, and if they could, this would prevent the laws of evolution from acting as they should. Throughout the history of humanity, tools have existed allowing us to access information: we’ve had public libraries for more than a century, but as they require some effort to access, they kept those who were too stupid to use them away. The Internet, however, puts information a click away from anyone, and with it, allows anyone, even those who are too stupid to think about what they are reading, to access it. In that sense, the social networks should avoid being used for the purposes of manipulation by third parties, should identify information clearly meant to go viral, as well as working harder to remove anything inciting violence or hatred, but beyond that, they cannot — and should not — become arbiters of content posted on them. They are, simply a channel, with some rules that should be as transparent as possible. In the final analysis, we alone are responsible for protecting ourselves against misinformation, fake news or scams.

A scam is a scam, and the law has the means to protect us from scammers, however hard that might seem on the internet. But what are we supposed to do with people who give their bank details to fake former Nigerian dictators promising to transfer billions of dollars into their accounts? How on earth can it be the responsibility of an email service or a social network? Surely this is simply a case of somebody who cannot be trusted to use the internet. There is no point in railing against the internet and its users, although we should pursue the scammers; instead we need to educate people to understand that as in the real world, when something seems too good to be true it’s because it is.

We cannot build an idiot-proof internet: people have to learn that not everything they read on Facebook, what appears as a result of a Google search or what comes to them by WhatsApp is necessarily true. The problem, of course, is that many people want to believe the lies they have already convinced themselves of and now want to convince others of. We’ve seen it all too many times: when a social network removes fake news or hate speech, thousands of idiots make it go viral by headlining it “What Facebook doesn’t want you to read”.

Not that the internet or social networks are the sole purveyors of fake news: traditional media such as radio, newspapers or television also help spread it when it matches their editorial line, either in search of readers or revenue. All the internet and social networks have done or it is to allow anybody to spread fake news, in the same way that if you have the means, you can fake your audience as well.

I agree that the social networks should be transparent about their rules, that they should try to prevent manipulation and prevent hate speech and incitement to violence. But focusing the problem of fake news on the social networks is a serious mistake, because the real responsibility lies with us. All it will take to overcome this problem is to educate the younger generation to use critical thinking, to not take anything for granted simply because it is written in a book, is on a screen or is in a video. Ignoring our own responsibility is like warning us not to dry our pets in the microwave in case some idiot does so and then sues the manufacturer: a permanent reminder that some people are too stupid not just to use a microwave, but to live in wider society. And of course, to use the internet.

(En español, aquí)