It is easy to dismiss Tim Berners-Lee as seeking to create a Ministry of Truth or Ministry of Trust on the internet as if he had taken Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four or The Inquisition as a blueprint. But he’s not that extreme and PR has an interest here. As communicators of truthful, trusted, but partisan information our industry has a major stake in this debate. We cannot ignore this issue.
Many myths surround the internet. One is that it is an uncensored free-for-all when it comes to content. But pedophiles are not free to publish their porn online. Libel rules apply on line, just as they do offline. Committing crimes online is an offense. So, online freedom is already subject to some controls.
But the sheer volume and chaotic nature of online content has created an environment in which rumour, disinformation and cults have damaged the integrity of established institutions and authority. Andrew Keen’s Cult of the Amateur says this represents a major challenge to our democracies, culture and values, as well as undermining intellectual property rights and the premium placed on expertise.
Berners-Lee seems to agree, at least in part. He threw down the gauntlet in his speech before the Knight Foundation in September, when he announced the creation of the World Wide Web Foundation:
“Our success will be measured by how well we foster the creativity of our children. Whether future scientists have the tools to cure diseases. Whether people, in developed and developing economies alike, can distinguish reliable healthcare information from commercial chaff. Whether the next generation will build systems that support democracy, inform the electorate, and promote accountable debate.”
The difficulty of the challenge he’s set is that writers and organizations can be opinionated, respectable and openly biased all at the same time. Ideas are not easily contained. Truth is not an absolute. It is difficult to define and is often conflicting. New Scientist has argued that the whole idea should be dropped.
But there is a line, which we have learned not to cross in the real word that in the virtual world seems to get crossed all too often
The question is what can be done to improve matters? There are a number of issues that need exploring:
- Should we just forget about it and let things happen?
- Should we introduce a labeling, branding or grading system of trustworthy credible sources? If so, how would that be determined and governed?
- What kind of checking systems, verifiability, accreditation and calibration would we adopt?
- Should respectable online sources band together and reinforce each other’s commitment to maintaining certain, yet to be defined, minimal standards of conduct?
- Would this encourage a counterculture proud to be outside the mainstream? And if so, does that matter?
- How would we ensure that some kind of grading or assessment of respectability and integrity of sources did not close down genuine debate?
I don’t pretend to have all the answers, though I do explore some of them here. My starting point is that the PR industry has a very big stake in the outcome of this debate. We are, after all, at the forefront of communicating credible, trusted information. My other starting point is that doing nothing would be a betrayal of the public interest and of our duty as professionals to society.