When I was a teenager, nobody pumped their own gas. You drove up to a service station, said “fill ‘er up” and a local attendant filled up your tank, washed your windows and, if you asked, would check your oil and coolant levels.
Somewhere along the line, some gas station owners figured they could cut their costs by firing the gas attendants and getting folks to fill up their own tanks.
This trend skyrocketed, propelled by two very strong human emotions: The desire to save a few bucks and the desire to be in control. Time is money and nobody wanted to sit in their car and wait for an attendant to become available. Today, hardly anyone pumps gas.
The same trend is now occurring in grocery and drug stores. It’s taking a while. People have to learn how to scan their own merchandise. The scanning systems have to improve. But it’s happening. One day, almost everybody will scan their own drugs and groceries.
Although it may not be obvious, the same trend is happening in the news industry. It used to be people subscribed to a publication or watched television shows created by professionals.
These professional journalists went to school and learned how to winnow fact from fiction and how to write clearly and objectively (or at least, as objectively as possible). Journalists were news hounds, following all events closely and reporting on them so you didn’t have to do it yourself.
Somewhere along the line, Internet websites realized they could post content from somewhere else without hiring any journalists and save money. Why pay for a newspaper subscription when you could get the news free? Over half the journalists in the country lost their jobs.
These low-cost news aggregators are stealing content from legitimate news sources. It is high time for Congress to amend our copyright laws and stop this ongoing theft. Congress is in the process of doing so, but Big Tech is rich and powerful and it remains to be seen what will happen.
As a result, the average American is going to have to learn how to become their own editor just like they learned how to pump gas. There’s just one problem: Learning to become a journalist is far more complicated than learning to pump gas.
Compounding the problem is that the average person thinks they are far more skilled at being their own editor than in fact they are.
On occasion, I have tried to be my own accountant, lawyer, doctor and carpenter. Sometimes, I did ok. But when push came to shove, I would have been much better off acknowledging my limitations and hiring a professional to do the job.
I am not whining here. This cat is way out of the bag and not coming back. But the American people have a long, long way to go before they replace the professionals the Internet phenomenon has displaced.
Was traditional media biased? Of course, there is always bias. But that’s nothing compared to the outright fake news plaguing the Internet and social media. And most people are clueless that they are being manipulated. And I’m not talking about the average Joe. I’m talking about extremely bright and competent people.
There are lots of conspiracy theories out there. Some have merit, some are playful. But one conspiracy theory that was proven by Congress is the fact that Russia has for years used thousands of full time bloggers to post fake news on the Internet to sow political unrest and discord in the United States.
It worked, creating a hugely divided American electorate that ultimately led to the first public storming of the US Capitol in our history. As the Ukraine war rages on, you can still hear Americans spouting this Russian propaganda: The US provoked Russia into invading Ukraine. Ukraine is the most corrupt country in the world. The US staged a coup in Ukraine in 2014 and toppled the legitimately elected government.
Russian disinformation all. Bought and paid for with Russian oil and gas.
At first, we thought the Internet would be a great thing, creating an almost infinite diversity of opinions and thoughts and reports. What we failed to recognize was how easily the Internet could be manipulated. The same technology that provided unlimited content ultimately provided for unlimited manipulation.
Right now, Putin has total control over the Russian media. Its people think Russia is engaged in a great patriotic war to stop the rise of the Nazi party in Ukraine. They have been brainwashed. Just like the average American can be brainwashed by Big Tech, which now has an unprecedented monopoly and horrifyingly scary potential for thought control. This is not simply pumping gas.
There is an upside. If Americans rise to the occasion and truly educate themselves in all the complexity of news gathering and potential manipulation, we could become freer and more educated than ever before. The first step is humility and acknowledgment of the immensity of the task.
We must be extremely vigilant to make sure this new digital ecosystem is open and free and diverse. We cannot allow a handful of companies to dominate. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. We are walking down a dangerous path.
The Ukraine war is yet another chapter in the age old war between freedom and slavery. Like anything, it is infinitely complex. But you can’t miss the forest for the trees. I believe freedom will prevail. People will always choose freedom over tyranny no matter how arrogant a dictator may become.
The battle for freedom is fought on many fronts. Let’s not be blind to the less visible battle that is being fought everyday in our own country.