IN 1998, The Rand Corporation, an American global policy think tank, published a paper on the parallels between the Printing Revolution and the Information Age from which emerged the digital revolution.1 The comparison was a reasonable one: both revolutions saw the democratisation of knowledge, facilitated by the mass production and distribution of information at a lower cost to the public; and both prompted social and scientific progress that would otherwise have been unimaginable. The paper also predicted the implications of the Information Age to be as profound as those of the Printing Revolution, warning of a “dark side” to this development.2
The Influence of the Printing Press on Digital Revolution
Mainstream discussions about the Printing Revolution generally revolve around its role as a precursor to paradigm shifts and social changes that led to transformative historical events such as the Renaissance, the Age of Enlightenment, and the Protestant Reformation. Few talk about its less desirable consequences, e.g. having put “information, misinformation, and power in the hands of more people than ever before.”3
This last statement recounting the impact of the printing press could just as easily describe the digital revolution, but with even more weight. While in the past, content and information were largely produced by authority figures such as the government, pundits and established organisations, social media has “egalitarianised” content creation. With the rise of social platforms like blogs, Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp, anyone with an internet connection and a device can now produce and distribute digital media content to a wide audience.
Economists term a technology that has the capacity to affect the entire economy – that is, one that has lasting effects on society at large, on work conditions and the economy – general-purpose technology. Such a technology, despite having vast long-term benefits, is often initially disruptive to the status quo, and which quickly defines society’s new norms. In the early stages of such revolutions, considerable resources are devoted to re-imagining and adapting socio-political practices to the new realities.
Experts have surmised that the benefits of these technologies come from society adapting to it, rather than merely adopting it.4 This echoes the views of technology strategist Jesse Chen, who argues that while the internet may have democratising effects, technologies still need to be purposely designed for the nuances of democracy for it to reach all levels of society.5
Strides and Backslides
Objectively, the digital revolution brings undeniable progress, but it also holds potential destructiveness, some of the effects of which we are already beginning to experience. Social media and the democratisation of content are still relatively new phenomena, and legislation, policies as well as education have yet to keep pace with the ever-changing media landscape. As a result, abuse and misuse of this freedom in creating content abounds, and the general lack of media literacy in many populations across the world has led to unimpeded spread of fake news, disinformation and misinformation.
When the public is not adequately educated to distinguish between truths, half-truths and lies, mistrust of the media grows and people often then turn to and rely on information that suits their individual beliefs and stance without regard for accuracy. In this sense, the failure of governments and regulatory bodies to legislate and devise policies that maximise the benefits of the internet, while mininising its harmfulness, may have deep and lasting social, political and economic consequences.
One such example is the unbridled proliferation of content farms which, taking advantage of the lack of regulation and scrutiny from authorities, characteristically sensationalise news and report issues without proper fact-checking. On the other hand, traditional media which may provide a fairer and more accurate account of an issue then lags behind in terms of output speed and content appeal. Since the optimisation of general-purpose technologies relies on adaptation and readjustments in society, media literacy should no longer be merely considered “good practice” but be seen as an integral concern in policy-making. The challenges of tackling disinformation lie, among others things, in teaching the public to be more critical and discerning of information they consume, in creating evidence-based, non-biased and engaging content, and in formulating social designs that address complex public problems.
Media Literacy a Potent Tool for Democracy
Objectively, the digital revolution brings undeniable progress, but it also holds potential destructiveness, some of the effects of which we are already beginning to experience.
To build trust and media literacy in the digital age, Penang Institute organised and hosted TechCamp Malaysia 2020 over the course of two weeks in October 2020. The issue is especially pertinent to Malaysia now, considering the pandemic and the political instability. TechCamp, a series of participant-driven workshops supported by the US embassy in KL and the Department of State in Washington, D.C, aims to connect private sector technology experts with key populations to apply technology solutions to global issues.
What was originally planned to be an in-person event was, in light of Covid-19, adapted into the first-ever fully virtual TechCamp workshop. Participants with backgrounds ranging from journalists and educators to activists and social media content creators gathered for five days of intensive training guided by experts in the fields of journalism, media literacy and data validation. The goal of this programme is to support participants in projects of their own which are aimed at developing and executing practical technology-based solutions to challenges faced in countering disinformation.
TechCamp participants from Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia and the Philippines on Zoom.
In a pitched proposal by a group of participants, the issue of a lack of civic education and political engagement in young adults in Malaysia was raised. Instead of cultivating a civil and safe environment for the intellectual discussion of political matters, universities in Malaysia have made such activities illegal. It was argued that the absence of an avenue for rational and polite discourse on politics under the purview of a moderating figure is dangerous as it fails to inoculate students against discussions held in forums and social media, which, lacking accountability, may be much more radical, biased and much less evidence-based.
The constitutional amendment on July 16, 2019 which garnered bipartisan support to lower the voting age of Malaysians from 21 to 18 makes this issue all the more significant. Coupled with the lack of independent websites to fact-check and analyse statements made by political figures as well as the low rate of media literacy among the populace, this presents a threat to democracy itself.
It may sound overly dramatic to relate media literacy to the future of democracy, but the political decision of a citizen who is under- or ill-informed and deprived of factual, fair and unbiased information calls into question the integrity of his or her decision. Collectively, the political decisions of a majority of citizens whose capacity to make informed political choices has been undermined by political misinformation calls into question the integrity and sanctity of the entire democratic process in the country.
We would do well to remember that democracy remains a fragile institution, and is demonstrably susceptible to the damages caused by disinformation.
The epoch of the digital revolution has just started, but if we are to apply the trajectory of the Printing Revolution to our own, we should expect social changes to be of a magnitude that is at least comparable to those of the Renaissance era. Whether this change brings about net progress or regress hinges on how we navigate a complex and potentially damaging landscape to our advantage.
And educational programmes such as TechCamp is one way of countering the effect of the “dark side”.