Manipulation - a challenge today and tomorrow

As technology continues at a fast pace, society has to make sure it is ready to fight manipulation

In an earlier life I lived in Sicily. It’s an enchanting place where, to a certain extent, one can breathe and see the extremes of live. It was also a period in my life where I learnt a lot. Malta then was not what Malta is today. There were no ‘no-frills’ airlines taking you to Europe for the cost of a taxi ride. There was no internet and little exposure to the outside world.

One day a child from the small village where I lived needed to go to hospital. He was taken to Palermo which, for many rural Sicilians, was the epitome of a metropolis; few had left their village, let alone travelled to other places.

This young child arrived at the hospital and stared at the stairs to the first floor. He was amazed. He didn’t know what to do. Then it dawned on those around him. This young child, born and raised in the countryside, had never seen a large building with huge steps. He had to learn how to go about it.

Everything is relative. There is no uniformity in what we do. What is simple for you is complicated for me. What is simple for me may be complicated for others. Understanding this is a life lesson. Throughout life one has to have the self-awareness to appreciate the different colours of things. Black and white rarely exist in life.

I am talking about this in the context of the conference I attended this week organised by the Commonwealth Centre for Connected Learning on understanding post-truth society. The point I made was that the fake news phenomenon is not something new. It always existed. God knows closed societies, such as North Korea and the Soviet Union, had perfected them. What has changed today is the packaging of it, and the digital analytical aspects which increases consumption through wider volume.

I remember adverts in newspapers, including British and American ones, which clearly said that cigarettes were good for you. Google them and you will find them. In one particular American ad, it went as far as saying “Just what the doctor ordered”. Marlboro used children, babies even, in their advertising to encourage young fathers to buy their cigarettes.

What has happened since then? We have created regulations around false advertising and restricted such manipulation and fakery. This will also happen with social media eventually. Platforms such as Facebook have already been warned that this cannot continue and to beef up their internal mechanisms to limit abuse and fake news. I believe that eventually, perhaps even through AI, fake news will become a thing of the past. However, what will happen is what has always happened. Manipulation will take another form, and this is where I think we have to focus our energies. Critical thinking is the key – especially if we nurture young people, from an early age, to analyse things properly.

With every generation this is improving. Like anything, this is something that can be developed in schools. As parents, we might not like to nurture this because it diminishes one’s authority. A thinking child is a less obedient child. But the wider picture is that we’re growing a generation of people who think, who criticise, who argue and who reason. This is very important because as technology continues at a fast pace, society has to make sure it is ready to fight manipulation. In whatever form it comes.

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