Monday, January 30
09:58 PM

Towards a better info ecosystem

13 Aug 2022

By Syed Adil Abbas

The great crises are hitting a new information reality. The war in Ukraine is characterised partly by real-time horrific images and partly by a discussion about the accuracy of these images and information. In just a few weeks after the war started, the President of Ukraine had gathered more international followers on social media than Oman has inhabitants. The WHO has described the COVID-19 crisis as not only a pandemic but also an ‘infodemic’. The climate crisis is constantly the subject of politicised discussions about facts and calculations of how bad the situation really is.

Behind these crises and debates is a fundamentally different media and information landscape than 20 years ago. Gone are the dominance of television monopolies and some newspapers. Instead, we’ve got new big tech monopolies, social media platforms, and unimaginable amounts of information. It is an information landscape that makes it possible to become both a couch expert and be online 24/7 without having to deal with crises, society or politics at all.
We have a common task in ensuring an information landscape that is characterised by diversity, trust and transparency but there are some challenges along this journey.

Today, access to information is a vital necessity. However, the rules of the game when it comes to the information society are, to say the least, soft. We have some rules for radio licenses, other rules for the print press, and still other rules when it comes to television, journalism or advertising. On the other hand, we have very few rules when it comes to the Internet.

We have reached a point where we need to recognise the fact that access to information is a vital necessity and should be treated as a critical infrastructure. This means that common ground rules must be agreed, as is now the case under the auspices of the EU with the Digital Markets Act and the Digital Services Act. It also means that we in Oman should have a conversation about what role information, access to it and content, should play in our society. We need to approach that discussion as if we were talking about vital infrastructure.

In recent years, the big tech platforms have become some of the world’s largest, richest and most successful companies. They have occupied a central place in the society for which none of them were designed. This means that they have been given power that puts them in the spotlight in crucial moments such as the Brexit vote, the US presidential election, the Capitol attack on January 6, 2021 and most recently in connection with the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Fortunately, we have not been exposed to a similar situation in Oman, but let us not be naive. It is in these moments that it becomes apparent that these platforms have become absolute central gatekeepers in our society.

At the same time, the importance of information and online platforms for governments has also become more visible. Russia has banned Facebook and other platforms as part of their war. The European Commission has suspended the broadcasting activities of Sputnik and Russia Today in the EU.

It is undesirable in this respect for the governments and the European Commission to take on this role, but in particular, it is problematic that the platforms are so central. Unfortunately, we do not really know enough about this central position, because our data access to research and understand social media is so limited. Nevertheless, let it be clear that it should not be the platforms that, with or without government intervention, should determine what information is available. It is too important to leave it to them.

We must expand our arsenal to combat misinformation. We now have some evidence of when ‘pre-bunking’ is effective – that is educating citizens to be critical media users. In addition, we also know when ‘debunking’ through fact checking can be effective.

Therefore, we should help not only by focusing on the problematic content, but also by marking and helping to ‘flag’ the content that has been worked through.

The information war has many facets. We need data and knowledge to create an ecosystem where information is seen as critical infrastructure, where platforms are given a place that is subject to market and agreed rules, and where we work towards combating misinformation. It is in the information reality that citizens, managers and businesses need to navigate.

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