The time for ‘neutrality’ has passed

Just as pseudoscience — “science-y sounding” information that is not scientific — is dangerous when used to convey misinformation about health, energy, the environment and other topics, “pseudonews” is dangerous when used to convey misinformation about politics, finance, regulations, public policy and other matters of importance to citizens and society.

It’s not necessarily “fake news,” because it might accurately portray certain events and occurrences, although not everything about those events and occurrences. But, just as with pseudoscience, pseudonews is designed to deceive and mislead, not inform, educate and enlighten.

And this is where our current digital landscape complicates things greatly: with hundreds of thousands of websites purporting to present news from every angle and viewpoint, it’s incredibly difficult to sort real news from pseudonews… because there’s so much more of the latter. Unfortunately, technology companies have enabled this confusion because it benefits their bottom lines — in the form of advertising dollars — to the detriment of factual reporting and healthy public discourse.

As Jonathan Taplin noted in an Aug. 12, 2017, commentary in The New York Times, “Google Doesn’t Want What’s Best for Us”:

“The rise of Google and the other giant businesses of Silicon Valley have been driven by a libertarian culture that paid only lip service to notions of diversity. Peter Thiel, one of the ideological leaders in the Valley, wrote in 2009 on a blog affiliated with the Cato Institute that ‘since 1920, the vast increase in welfare beneficiaries and the extension of the franchise to women — two constituencies that are notoriously tough for libertarians — have rendered the notion of capitalist democracy into an oxymoron.’

“If women should not even have the vote, why should we worry about gender diversity in the engineering ranks?” Taplin continued. “The effects of the darker side of tech culture reach well beyond the Valley. It starts with an unwillingness to control fake news and pervasive sexism that no doubt contributes to the gender pay gap.”

While there are plenty technology leaders who don’t share Thiel’s retrograde beliefs, too many others have for long attempted to stay “neutral,” to stay above the fray of gender politics, race politics, climate change politics and a cornucopia of other fraught politics. The result, however, has been an explosion of pseudonews and misinformation across the online world, from Facebook to Twitter, Google to Reddit, and beyond.

That ugliness has now begun spreading out further into the “real world,” where anonymous trolling and ugly memes are replaced by very real and physical threats to the well being of individual people, democracy and society as a whole. If “neutrality” and “all-sides-are-equal” responses were inadequate before, they’re now unacceptable.

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