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Sunscreen Spill on the Misinformation Superhighway

Part 2: The curious logic of 'hyperreality'

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Embellishing on McLuhan, French philosopher Jean Baudrillard suggests that film, television, and now the Internet have created a zeitgeist of "hyperreality" in which direct experience takes a back seat to simulated objects and experiences. This happens because simulations, unlike real things, can be endlessly and perfectly replicated. We are "seduced" by a simulated object's aura of perfection. It begins to appear, in Baudrillard's words, "more real than reality."

Think about it. In the digital age, information can be reproduced and distributed at the click of a mouse button. When I forward an email message to you, I cause an exact duplicate of a text I've received to appear in your inbox. I haven't communicated the information to you, I have simply transfered it. The information is thus, in a way, autonomous — untouched by human hands, as it were — which, by the curious logic of hyperreality, actually heightens its air of authenticity.

A chain of unaccountability

It also negates the principle of accountability, because even though I can pass the same piece of information on to you and a hundred other people by clicking "Forward," I am in no practical sense its source.

Imagine a chain of unaccountability stretching across a network comprising millions of users instantaneously transferring information, twenty-four hours a day. That is the Internet.

Are there solutions? I'm not optimistic, to be perfectly honest, because my conviction is that the spread of misinformation on the Internet is an ethical problem, not a legal or technical one. The traditional recommendation, "verify the source," won't cut it here, for the simple reason that in scenarios like the one before us, there are no sources.

Taking responsibility

Our only recourse, I believe, is to fall back on the basic principle of personal responsibility. Each of us, as information passes through our hands, has the opportunity to break out of the chain and validate the facts ourselves — in effect, to become a source and willingly be held accountable.

Unfortunately, like all ethical solutions, this one depends on individuals acting on principle and choosing to do the right thing.

Which means, on the grand scale, that it's probably no solution at all.

So it goes.

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