Caroline Neuenfeld


In search for truth in the Internet

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Symbolfoto Fake News

Do you believe everything you read in the Internet? If yes, you can stop reading now.

Or are you concerned about the rise of online fake news? ? Do you fear for the integrity of the democratic process due to manipulations via Social Media? Are you alarmed about the increase of online hate speech?

I am and I am certainly not alone. At Deutsche Telekom’s campaign day “1001 Truth”, several hundred employees turned out to listen to internal and external experts’ opinion on these subjects. And to share their own views in the following discussions on trust and truth.

It proved for me at least one thing: the importance of raising awareness about the damage that false information and hate speech can do to opinion forming and a civil dialogue on matters of public interest.

And it’s also about the perceptions and emotions of the audience. Why are we still aware of the campaign slogan of President Trump – and wonder what Ms. Clinton had as a motto? At campaign day, Julius van de Laar, one of President Obama’s former election consultants and a German election campaign expert attracted a lot of interest. He spoke about fake news and the role of data in the US presidential campaigns of 2008 and 2016. In a nutshell: Digital media is playing a strong role in interpreting election-relevant policy issues. But it’s candidates and their positions who win elections, not Social Media or the Internet.

Digitization is changing behavior, perception and feelings completely. No question for social psychologist Catarina Katzer who deplored a “lack of digital empathy”. Now that Internet users are becoming less emphatic and less trusting, but also less well-informed due to fake news and manipulations in Social Media, what can be done? The day centered on the key question how can we reverse the trend.

It comes as no surprise that there are no absolute answers or solutions to the problem. Because you can teach people media competence, but you can’t teach empathy. That´s my point. Unlike tweets and posts, the human factor can’t be deleted.

Now consider fake news and conspiracy theories. People could cope with the decreasing credibility of facts on the Internet by gathering information from many different media sources. But while that sounds like a remedy for fake news for some, many social scientist counter-argue with theselective exposure theory: When confronted with diverse information choices, people usually accept information that confirms their ideas and prejudices and biases, and ignore what doesn’t. If their chosen information happens to be fake news and they share it online, it spreads.

Or take hate speech. First of all, why would we expect the virtual world to be any different from the real world? The Internet just reflects what is out there, good and bad.

In order to uphold a civil discourse and to protect others from being harassed, discriminated or mobbed, deleting an offensive post is  the socially desirable action. But it does not delete the hate in somebody’s brain. Deleting hate speech makes it invisible for others in the Internet. But the hate that inspired it will still be there, and that somebody might simply go elsewhere on the Internet to spread hostility. Deleting can therefore never be a substitute for argument. It´s like a doctor curing the symptoms but not the illness.

That said, we are not helpless against the distortion of truth or the spread of hatred in the Internet. We can do something, everyone by oneself and together. An “uprise” of those who want truth in the Internet and who refuse to be mislead or to be exposed to hateful comments will not free the Internet from hate speech or a distortion of truth through fake news. But it’s a start.

At campaign day, David Schraven, of the social research company correctiv, told the audience that, while there were only few groups who spread fake news systematically, society needs to become an “editorial society” against fake news – a big educational challenge, but a place to start from nonetheless.

The initiator of “Hass hilft” (“Hatred helps”), Fabian Wichmann, presented his very successful online initiative in which hate comments are transformed into donations for the very people that are the target of these posts. For each hate comment, one Euro is donated

The “human factor” is responsible for turning parts of the internet into a place where false information or hatred thrive. But it is also the “tool” to make it a more trusting, decent and kinder place. This is why Telekom CEO Tim Höttges said in his video message to the participants of the campaign day:

„We have to have the right attitude in the digital world. We have to have a clear stance, especially in a complex setting like ours today”. And he called us to action: “Keep your eyes open and take action if people are discredited, if they spread fake information, or if data is misused”.

I am sure those many people on-site and those who later watched the videos from the live stream, will take his appeal to their hearts.