What kind of digital world do we want to live in: commentary

Beijing, China – Nov 9, 2018 (CCTV) – While a growing number of people are getting access to the Internet across the world, experts have voiced their concerns about the online environment where social media and misinformation are impacting our daily lives, according to a commentary published Friday on the website of China Radio International (CRI) under China Media Group (CMG).

The commentary called for the international community to together to develop commonly agreed on concepts around Internet governance that are transparent, fair, and orderly.

The following is the full text of the article:

The fifth World Internet Conference has wrapped up in the city of Wuzhen, known as the Venice of China. Its theme, “Creating a Digital World for Mutual Trust and Collective Governance – Towards a Community with a Shared Future in Cyberspace”, has raised a pressing issue that faces the digital era we’re now living in.

A week before the conference, thousands of miles away in Manhattan, New York, a newsstand appeared and captured the attention of passersby. Its magazines and newspapers closely mimicked the cover designs of mainstream publications, but the titles were all different and had mind-boggling wild headlines that had been heavily shared on social media. The “Fake News Stand” was installed by the Columbia Journalism Review in an attempt to call attention to the dangers of the misinformation people encounter online.

By the end of June, more than four billion people, 55 percent of the world’s population, had access to the Internet. The spread of access to the Internet has changed how we communicate, how we think and how we define our values. If the content we encountered online was overwhelmingly legally obtained and respectful of people’s privacy, we wouldn’t have a problem. But the reality is that the news that travels fastest on the Internet is often false, shocking, and pessimistic. For this reason, we can’t pretend that the information shared online isn’t important.

The inventor of the World Wide Web, British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee, has a deep understanding of this phenomenon. In 1989, he created Mesh, which he later renamed the World Wide Web. As the world prepares to celebrate the 30th birthday of the Internet, its leading inventor expressed his disappointment with how it has been used to abuse personal privacy and spread hatred. “If you put a drop of love into Twitter it seems to decay, but if you put in a drop of hatred you feel it actually propagates much more strongly,” said Berners-Lee. In his view, people have “lost the feeling of individual empowerment” and to a certain extent “the optimism has cracked”.

Berners-Lee’s view of Twitter has been corroborated by a study carried out by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which found that false news stories are 70 percent more likely to be re-tweeted than true stories. When it comes to Twitter’s “cascades”, unbroken chains of re-tweets, falsehoods spread about 20 times faster than facts. It also takes true stories around six times longer to reach an audience of 1,500 people as it does for false stories.

Apart from the content, another issue of concern is how Internet companies make money, especially the big players whose profits often rely on collecting and selling access to massive amounts of personal data. Self-regulation among these players will never work, according to Taylor Owen, assistant professor of Digital Media and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia. It won’t work in the same way that self-regulation didn’t work for American financial firms, which ultimately triggered the near total collapse of the world’s financial system in 2008.

Given this reality, the international community must work together to develop commonly agreed on concepts around Internet governance that are transparent, fair, and orderly. China’s President Xi Jinping has pointed out that “the sound use and development of the Internet calls for closer international cooperation and joint efforts to build a community of shared future in cyberspace”.

The late Greek computer scientist Michael Dertouzos once said, “We made a big mistake 300 years ago when we separated technology and humanism. It’s time to put the two back together.” Now is the time for us to jointly develop rules for our shared digital world on the basis of mutual respect, equality, and tolerance.

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