A better public space with new rules and an online gathering of global citizens who can vote is desperately needed as we engage in what may be a final fight against climate change and war. That is what I call SafetyNet.
The development of a new global media and public space that is fit for purpose in the crisis zone we now live in involves a reassessment of journalistic codes of practice, as well a pushback against the many problems of the current global public sphere. Verified information, unbiased journalism and a safe public space for all is not a lot to ask for, but it is as distant and aspirational as a Starlink satellite.
Putin’s savage invasion of Ukraine has thrown light on to some of the worst problems of the global sphere hosted by the internet, but also shows the way to solutions. One of the key takeouts of this horrific war is the visibility of Putin’s war crimes and the unity of global citizens in condemning them and causing sanctions to be applied. However, we also see the relentless propaganda from Russia: that NATO was threatening Russia (no it wasn’t) and the “we are one” with Ukraine lie. It is Russia’s tanks with a Z on them, they just need an N, an A, and an I to complete the word. Yet the reach of the propaganda, and the way journalists who have been trained to “balance” a story will reference it, leaves a credibility gap that allows misinformation to take hold.
Sadly, our online public sphere now resembles a deflated ball. Rupert Murdoch pioneered turning news gathering into a bias generating machine, as fossil fuel lobbyists roam the halls of power and generate “clean coal” and “gas led transitions” media releases to help feed it. The fossil fuel industry over many years has almost destroyed general understanding of climate change and the industry’s own continuing role in downplaying it, much as the tobacco lobby obscured the dangers of smoking for many years.
Scientists themselves understand that their work in warning the world of the catastrophe to come has been marginalised and presented as a point of view rather than evidence based prediction, showing the fatal flaw in our global public sphere environment. Profit, politics and power have undermined science and the search for truth. We must now straighten out our priorities, and an effective global media sphere with feedback and voting rights will create a powerful force for change.
Social media, for many, is also not a safe place. Women are trolled mercilessly online. Big Tech is demonised for trying to keep the space open for free speech, and we are also seeing weaponisation of defamation law so that constructive criticism of powerful interests is silenced. We see space given to sophisticated “lures” put out by extremists who are expert in getting people to research conspiracy theories until reality recedes. Paid influencing is rife across many fields including politics.
How do we pump the ball up again?
We have seen Big Tech move decisively as global citizens (finally!) during the Ukraine conflict, to enable communications in Ukraine and to remove the platforms for lies and propaganda that would only add to the suffering of the people. Putin has created a digital “Iron Curtain” and internal forum that handily provides a model for everything that global citizens reject. Big Tech should not pull back from this exercise in global ethics, but rather see it as a new beginning in the creation of a public sphere that genuinely serves the information needs of global citizens, rather than one that sells stuff. Big Tech is on the right road to democracy 2.0.
A global citizens’ SafetyNet should be amplified, invested in, and given universal access in principle. The splinternet is not with us yet, and countries that choose to isolate in future will probably be fighting a losing battle to keep free information from its citizens.
SafetyNet would provide verified data and “safe” forums – for example, legal advice in respect of defamatory speech, global ethics based assessment of trolling, misinformation, and propaganda and the removal of this information from the public sphere. It would prioritise the issues around climate change, wars, pandemics, refugees – all the legitimate concerns of global citizens.
It is now OK to modify these aspects of free speech, if it is with the informed consent of participants and if it conforms to the principles of global citizens (refer to previous blog posts). This represents an ethical advance in the construction of the public forum, just as modern journalistic ethics changed things up from men in togas making speeches.
SafetyNet could inform, entertain, educate – just like traditional media. But unlike traditional media, it would not be obliged to report the ravings of despots and the lobbying of coal producers. The advertisements for more and more stuff would give way to investigations of what it will take to save our world from ruin by fire, flood, heat, and drought. It would find out who is responsible for these losses and the environmental destruction we see. Increased participation of marginalised groups would bring new perspectives. Feedback and voting would change the practice of global politics.
How would all this be paid for? What does it cost to develop the informational base and public sphere to support a global campaign to save a dying global ecosystem? That is above my pay grade, but defence budgets cost billions, and this endeavour could be framed as an information war.
Just as many people who were trying to live a good life sat in church (and still do) to receive their information about the world filtered by the pulpit, there are now many global citizens who want a safe, verified information space they can trust that tells them the truth, or as close as we can get, about the world we all live in. Clearly, that space would be contested and would be attacked with subversion in mind. It would be difficult to get a perfect balance of views. However, we now have established global principles to guide the new forum.
SafetyNet could use AI systems offering information from verified sources, cyber ethical journalism, transparency and distributed control, plus massive scope and the ability to personalise and build communities. It could develop the detailed global strategies we need to turn around the systems that are driving us to ruin.
The internet was built on free speech, universal access and the ability to route around interference. The global political sphere is in its DNA. It is now time to leverage the experience we have to give global citizens a chance to conduct the investigations, the discussions, and the strategies that are needed to get control of climate change and other major challenges.
Give global citizens the developed ethical global forum we desperately need to achieve democracy 2.0.