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Making the internet trustworthy again

Kenny MacIver & Rae Ritchie— November 2019

Restoring trust in the online world requires a clearer characterization of what information is expertise-backed fact and what is simply opinion — as well as a new transparency from the big internet companies, says author and keynote speaker Andreas Ekström.

• Fujitsu Forum Munich 2019 keynote speaker •

“The 2020s will contain two major digital challenges,” according to Andreas Ekström, journalist, author and keynote speaker. “One is going to be how we organize [the internet] from a democratic standpoint, making sure that it’s open to everyone around the globe. The second is to ensure the information it delivers up can be trusted.

“There’s going to be a battle about what is true that’s going to apply to every field,” says Ekström. “If we’re going to build a digital world right — indeed, if we’re going to build all of society right — we need to trust true expertise.” And, online, greater weight needs to be given to that expertise versus expressed opinion.

He cites the climate debate as a good example, where scientific arguments — that the lifestyle we have is not sustainable and requires decisively to reduce its impact — are now obviously winning, despite widespread arguments to the contrary.

He does not argue against freedom of speech on the internet — in fact the opposite — but wants an ongoing discussion about the balance between unsubstantiated opinion and respect for the authority of expertise.

“We’ve living at a time where some parents regard Google as their university, their source of knowledge — even for something as important as their child's health. So, they say something insane like, ‘I don’t give vaccines to my children’ when it’s not even a question up of discussion. The authority somone gets by Googling some opinions is a lot less than the 200 years of research by universities and doctors all around the world into a medical issue,” he says.

“It’s not a question of opinion — you get to choose your opinions but not your facts,” paraphrasing 20th-century US politician and sociologist Pat Moynihan.

And that applies across the whole of human knowledge that is under threat by the internet’s ability to spread misinformation. “I would love to see university researchers, super-experienced judges, people who really know what they’re talking about step forward and say, this is not a question of a debate. These are things we’ve known for 40 years [and more] and here is the reasoning.

“Just because your Facebook group thinks something else and you read it on ThingsThatAren’, that’s not going to make you an authority,” he says.
Editors of the world

There is other aspect of online veracity that Ekström cares great deal  about: how personal data is now treated as a tradable asset by the companies that dominate the internet.  

“It always comes back to the issue of personal integrity. And the one thing you ask of Facebook, Google, Amazon and the others is, ‘Please safeguard my personal integrity, my information,’” he says.

In that context, we need to understand that these aren’t regular companies. “We’ve never seen anything like them before — just the amount of money that is gathered with even the top five internet companies,” says Ekström. “And it’s not like, if we don’t like them we’re going to go elsewhere. Their position is so dominant, their shaping the world’s view of the world is so dominant that it’s almost not relevant to compare them to all other companies. They’re more like political entities.”

That means they have an incredibly large responsibility in deciding what the world gets to see, he says. And that demands higher levels of transparency so we can judge what we are seeing.

“I’m going to ask one thing of them. Talk to us about the decisions you’re making [on internet content] and explain why. Because, congratulations Google, congratulations Facebook, you were so incredibly good at what you did about organizing us and organizing the world’s information that you accidentally made yourselves editors of the world,” he says.

“Now please step forward and tell us what principles apply as you edit the world for us. Because without that discussion, we can’t get anywhere [on internet integrity].”

• Photography by Jonatan Fernstrom

First published
November 2019
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About: Andreas Ekström
An author, keynote speaker and commentator on the digital revolution, Andreas Ekström serves as a partner on all things digital to business and public service leaders. His passion is to educate for digital equality and to understand the companies and behaviors that have become the culturally, technologically and commercially drivers of digital change at all levels of society.

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