Anyone who thinks it’s a good idea to give government the power to decide what news is “fake news“ or may even be published should call to mind no less than Donald Trump who recently interrupted a journalist from CNN with the words: „You’re fake news!“
Governments tend to hold on to power. They should therefore never be given the power to decide which news is true news. When in doubt, critical news may be classified as fake news.
It’s useless to complain about the collapse of old structures and the appearance of new ones. Old media is indeed crumbling. Internet is here and won’t disappear as much as the printing press won’t disappear. When the printing press and books were invented, there was also much lamenting. Pessimists saw the end of the world and complained about the loss of good decency. Books, critics argued, would promote baseness and insult. And indeed, the printing press enabled the spread of trashy and pornographic literature then as the internet promotes it today.
The printing press also made the occupation of the copyist superfluous. Copywriting was an occupation whereby books were duplicated, mostly by monks. With the invention of printing, the Church lost its monopoly in the dissemination of knowledge. The Church tried to defend itself by complaining that the border between relevant and useless knowledge was blurred. Just as the ecclesiastical copyists at the time criticized book printing, large media groups and subsidized public television stations claim to be the lone guards of morality, goodness and decent journalism. They often harbor nothing but contempt for the Internet. They warn that things will get worse if the old media should disappear.
No one is fully objective. There is no true neutrality in news reporting. The Internet proves it. Everyone has an agenda. That’s why the slogan „media lies“ is so popular! Just as book printing once revealed that the Church had an agenda, we learn today that magazines, newspapers and public broadcasters have their agendas. Every book, every publisher, every blog and every station is guided by subjective interests. People continually have opinions about what people do. To deny one’s own subjectivity is self-righteous and deceptive. Objectivity is a myth!
Thanks to the Internet, increasingly more users are colliding with each other. We may complain, but nothing will change. When humans discovered fire, much went up in flames. But fire emancipated humans, and they eventually learned how to deal with dangers. When no one can tell us what we should believe, we must form our own opinions and beliefs in a sea of opinions, lies, and truths. That’s enlightenment at its best.
Enlightenment is the escape route from self-imposed immaturity! Immaturity is the inability to use one’s own mind without the guidance of another. This immaturity is self-inflicted if its cause is not due to lack of understanding, but to lack of resolution and courage. Sapere aude! Have the courage to use your own intellect! Laziness and cowardice are the causes of why so many people remain immature, and why it’s so easy for others to become their guardians. It’s so comfortable to be immature. If I have a book that guides my understanding, a pastor who is my conscience, I needn’t make an effort. I have no need to think if I rely on others who are willing to take over the sullen business for me.
I didn’t say that, Immanuel Kant did!
Remember those teachers who dragged the multimedia unit into the classroom and then spent half an hour trying to hook up the equipment? They were educated men and women, the educational elite, yet they were not able to manage a simple video recorder. Ultimately, they were dependent on the help of their students. They were educated but not up-to-date. It’s the same today with those who are critical of the Internet. They’ve been sleeping and are now reacting exactly as the privileged do when their privileges are threatened. They complain: „The world was better in the old days!“
We must learn to free ourselves. Just as the printing press allowed people to criticize the church and the emperor, we must now learn to avoid blind trust in present-day news media. Before the advent of Internet people were not better informed. There were just a lot more people who were informed about the same thing. Thirty years ago in Germany, only public broadcasters and the yellow press decided what was newsworthy. Today, however, there is no longer the same established group of people all talking about the same news report. More and more islands with different vegetation and cultures are emerging. Vera F. Birkenbihl explains what happens with those islands:
„If we imagine two people as islands communicating with each other, then we have either bad luck or good luck. If we are lucky, then the islands are overlapping. That is to say, at this point, we are either in agreement or in disagreement. If there’s an overlap in a discussion, there’s agreement. Then it’s easy to communicate with the other person. We see things similar. Interestingly, people find such conversations exciting. They’re considered good discussion. The participants see each other as intelligent and sympathetic. With bad luck, there’s no overlap. Then we have a chasm. Overcoming such distances is difficult.
‚One can sarcastically note that we’ve reached the moon, but still fail to reach our fellow man.‘ (Josef Ratiner)
In our schools, we haven’t learned to respect the fact that people have different islands and that they love their islands as much as we do ours. If we have overlapping, then we’re happy because we don’t need to communicate well. But, if we don’t have any overlap, then we either tend to talk past each other or a conflict ensues.
Can we build bridges? Even a bridge could form a common basis, even if many island contents remain different. That could be called the bridge building agreement. We could always agree to disagree.“
The Internet has led to people having declared independence for their islands. Things have now become more confusing. People argue more and are often offended. There’s more aggression and aggravation. Our conceptions of decency and manners are changing.
Today one doesn’t even have to leave the island in order to broadcast an opinion. Those who had an opinion earlier and wanted to be heard, had to write a letter, put on their pants, go outside, find a mailbox and then hope that the letter may be printed in a newspaper. Today, we can just lie in bed in our underwear and dump our thoughts and opinions onto the world. Just like I’m doing right now.
We will become more strangers to each other because there is no longer a big camp fire in the living room, around which we as a nation can gather and experience Oprah as the great uniter with which everyone can somehow agree with. But our world has become more colorful, more individual and more adventurous. Yes, there’ll be lies; certainties will be watered down! That’s what happens in a democracy. Power gets diluted. In a kingdom you have to bribe a king in order to achieve something, but in a democracy, you have to convince many other citizens to side with you. That’s why kings and dictators can get projects built breathtakingly fast, while in democracies airports, philharmonics and railway stations take much more time. Everyone can participate, but no single person has ultimate power, even if he or she is right!
Of course, the Internet carries risks, but the printing press did, also. Thanks to printing, Martin Luther could not only multiply his theses on the Reformation, but could also have his anti-Jewish tracts printed. In his work „Handbook on the Jewish Question“, Martin Luther wrote those things that led to Hitler in the 20th century and the Wannsee Conference:
“I shall give you my sincere advice: First, set fire to their synagogues or schools and bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn so that no traces are visible. (…)”
Martin Luther could publish this rubbish because of the printing press. In the same way, anti-Semitic writings are today widely shared on the Internet. Thanks to printing and the internet, not only do many more people have access to education, but more people can publish their opinions, even independent of facts. Books catapulted Jew hate into the mainstream, just like the Internet today.
The Internet presents us with new challenges. The Internet is here to stay and won’t disappear. So the question is: how do we deal with the risks? Bans won’t help! Deleting Internet pages is as productive as burning books. And: Government is not always on your side!