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A posture of intellectual scepticism, a necessary shield

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Information is the single most important resource used by people in making their decisions and the Internet is now the single greatest market place where information is trafficked.

Communication technologies have always offered politicians, both the scrupulous and the unscrupulous, extraordinary reach into the recesses of the human mind. At their best, they have been used to invite intellectual engagement with matters of public policy and rally nations to advance great causes.

Indeed, 500 years ago, the invention of the printing press revolutionized the production and distribution of knowledge and democratized debates on public policy in a manner inconceivable before then. The modern newspaper is a legacy of that revolution. But we also know that the newspaper can and has been used for nefarious purposes which cannot stand the light of truth. The invention of the radio roughly 100 years ago tells a similar story. With its capacity to reach millions at the speed of light, radio communication transformed political communication. Some of this was a wonderful connection of people and their governments in new relationships of mutuality. But there was also a darker side to this. In fact, the radio would play a central role in the early 20th century atrocities committed in Hitler’s Germany and Stalinist Russia, as well as the Rwandan genocides of the 1990s, as the leaders used the technology to galvanize people to support genocidal agendas. In St Vincent and the Grenadines, we can easily say, and few will dispute this, that talk radio has had a corrosive impact on our public debates.

It is in the light of this Jekyll and Hyde capacity of communication technologies that we must now confront how in the Age of the Internet we have arrived at the very zenith of the capacity to use new technologies not only to advance the public good, but also to create harm inconceivable barely 15 years ago. The old challenges to the integrity of our political system have, in fact, not gone away. And these are several. But, as demonstrated by the recent Facebook crisis, in which data from 50 million Facebook users was improperly used to influence elections, these challenges are amplified ten thousand fold. The world’s most powerful social network is in the midst of a reputational crisis, which caused its stock value to fall by over US$50 billion over a period of a few days. Democratic elections globally face their greatest threat ever, and it springs from their greatest asset: public communication.

Whereas consumers buy newspapers, listen to their radios, or watch their television sets as affirmative acts, the theft of person data and profiles has allowed information manipulators to invade and exploit the privacy and vulnerabilities of voters’ minds without invitation. Social media platforms are generally available to users free of charge, but is it really free? It has often been said, ““If you’re not paying for something, you’re not the customer. You are the product.”

There is a crucial distinction that separates Internet derived information from the earlier media platforms. With newspapers, radio and television, we know who is saying what, and we often know why. But the Internet provides anonymity from which the traffickers in subliminal corruption can wreak havoc on voters’ capacity to know the source of the information and the agenda of those who peddle it.

This new paradigm behoves us to have a new vigilance when consuming information. Now more than ever, we must ask what is the source of this information? Whose purpose does it serve? And can their claims be independently verified? This posture of intellectual scepticism will shield us from the beguiling and corrupt intent of the hidden manipulators.

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