In today’s media landscape, truth competes for attention. (WorldPost illustration)

Nathan Gardels is co-founder of the Berggruen Institute and editor in chief of its publication, The WorldPost.

“While once social media was seen as a liberating means to speak truth to power,” Wael Ghonim, who helped ignite the Arab Spring with his Facebook campaign, told me in deep disillusion in 2016, “now the issue is how to speak truth to social media.”

The unleashing of fake news, targeted dark ads and hate speech in the public discourse on an unprecedented scale results from a business model that prioritizes virality over the spread of truthful and trustworthy content.

It is often forgotten that algorithms themselves are not neutral. They are, after all, editorial decisions made by product managers that determine what, or what not, to amplify through the virtual megaphone. Unless what Ghonim calls the “mobocratic algorithm” ― which is employed by social media giants to monetize attention ― is altered or otherwise contained, democracy rooted in informed consent of the voting public is at risk. 

This week, The WorldPost examines the range of responses to this uniquely 21st-century challenge.

Jacob Mchangama and Flemming Rose, the Danish editor who stoked worldwide ire by publishing cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, worry that democratic governments are contemplating regulation to clamp down on fake news, as suggested in a recent WorldPost op-ed by Italy’s antitrust chief.

“No one, and particularly no official institution,” they argue, should be allowed to “determine the truth in matters of politics and public debate.” History demonstrates, they go on, that it is “far more important to explore the upside of the new technology than to protect against the potential downside.” The authors remind us that “in the 16th and 17th century, access to the press triggered waves of fake news and dissemination of wild conspiracy theories about witches and millenarian crazes. Religious fanaticism was printed side-by-side with scientific discoveries. During the first century after Gutenberg, print did as much to spread lies and false information as enlightened truth.” The implication left unsaid is that, in the end, the Enlightenment won out in this raucous free-for-all of competing ideas.

Onora O’Neill thinks it is not so simple. She sees a long history of ethical development that sorted it all out. “Cyber romantics still suggest that any restriction of online communication would be wrong,” O’Neill writes. “They forget that free speech is only one of the many standards that matter for the ethics of communication.”

For O’Neill, equally important in the digital age is the trustworthiness and truthfulness of information. “The ethical standards and the epistemic norms that matter for trustworthy communication, and that underpin the possibility of checking and challenging what others communicate, matter every bit as much for online as for offline communication,” the British philosopher, who was awarded the Berggruen Prize this week, argues. And she fears we have quite a way to go in this post-truth environment. “At present, we have not even developed a clear distinction between online platforms and online publishers, so we have no account of their respective responsibilities.”

A Berggruen Institute working group headed by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, which included representatives from Facebook and Google, recently met to discuss the deteriorating health of our information ecosystem and public square. The focus was precisely on this issue raised by O’Neill. Are the digital giants neutral platforms or media institutions that ought to be transparent about their algorithms and held accountable for editorial decisions? Unless the industry itself proactively addresses concerns about the deleterious impact of unbounded social media on democracy, all participants agreed, politicians and policymakers will impose solutions. Omidyar will present his views in a WorldPost op-ed next week.

Former Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves takes the issue to the geopolitical level. “With Facebook handing over Russian propaganda ads from the U.S. election to Congressional investigators, we must understand that this is part of a much broader assault,” he writes. For Ilves, such digital attacks are not unique to the U.S. but part of a campaign in which all democracies are vulnerable. “Building a collective defense in this new code war,” he says, “is at least as great a challenge as staving off the territorial or regional threats of the Cold War, when NATO was established in order to respond to threats in Europe.”

Even as this new challenge looms, the old Cold War seems to be coming back. This week, a new documentary directed by Leila Conners, “The Arrow of Time,” premiered at the Zurich Film Festival. The film, which features 86-year-old Mikhail Gorbachev, retraces the end of the Cold War and the reductions in nuclear arsenals when he and then President Ronald Reagan agreed that, as Gorbachev put it in a statement at the premiere, “Nuclear war is untenable, and there will be no winning side.” Today, the last Soviet leader laments with alarm, history is going into reverse. “The armaments race is gaining momentum again. Unscrupulous politicians yet again bring up the matter of using nuclear weapons.” The Nobel committee agrees. This week they awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to ICAN – the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.

This was produced by The WorldPost, a partnership of the Berggruen Institute and The Washington Post.

ABOUT US: The WorldPost is an award-winning global media platform that aims to be a place where the world meets. We seek to make sense of an interdependent yet fragmenting world by commissioning voices that cross cultural and political boundaries. Publishing op-eds and features from around the globe, we work from a worldwide perspective looking around rather than a national perspective looking out.

STAFF: Nathan Gardels, Editor in Chief; Kathleen Miles, Executive Editor; Dawn Nakagawa, Vice President of Operations; Farah Mohamed, Managing Editor; Peter Mellgard, Features Editor; Alex Gardels, Video Editor; Clarissa Pharr, Associate Editor; Rosa O’Hara, Social Editor; Suzanne Gaber, Editorial Assistant

EDITORIAL BOARD: Nicolas Berggruen, Nathan Gardels, Eric Schmidt, Pierre Omidyar, Arianna Huffington, Juan Luis Cebrian, Walter Isaacson, John Elkann, Wadah Khanfar, Yoichi Funabashi

CONTRIBUTING EDITORS: Moises Naim, Nayan Chanda, Katherine Keating, Sergio Munoz Bata, Parag Khanna, Seung-yoon Lee, Jared Cohen, Bruce Mau, Patrick Soon-Shiong

ADVISORY COUNCIL: Jacques Attali, Shaukat Aziz, Gordon Brown, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Jack Dorsey, Mohamed El-Erian, Francis Fukuyama, Felipe Gonzalez, John Gray, Reid Hoffman, Fred Hu, Mo Ibrahim, Alexei Kudrin, Pascal Lamy, Kishore Mahbubani, Alain Minc, Dambisa Moyo, Laura Tyson, Elon Musk, Raghuram Rajan, Nouriel Roubini, Nicolas Sarkozy, Gerhard Schroeder, Peter Schwartz, Amartya Sen, Jeff Skoll, Michael Spence, Joe Stiglitz, Larry Summers, George Yeo, Fareed Zakaria, Ernesto Zedillo, Zheng Bijian, Marek Belka, Tony Blair, Jacques Delors, Niall Ferguson, Anthony Giddens, Otmar Issing, Mario Monti, Robert Mundell, Peter Sutherland, Guy Verhofstadt