With modern information and publishing technologies, it’s easier than ever for average folks to actively participate in the spread of information. We can look beneath the official stories and create our own narratives that are not based in helplessness, isolation, or politicians’ posturing.
To be sure, misinformation isn’t a solved problem, but the tools are there and the way is easier to find than before.
Everyone knows about Wikileaks now, and the site has even featured documents that show the US government has plans for dealing with them. But so far Wikileaks is winning.
Today’s landscape of information has other features, of course. There are numerous alternative news sites that cater to a variety of concerns. LibertyActivism.info provides a libertarian library where users can view books, flyers, and how-tos, as well as upload files they find valuable. YouTube and cheap recording devices democratize video broadcasting — what once took a studio can now be done on widely-owned equipment. Podcasts sidestep the FCC and corporate directors, and the Liberty Radio Network provides a ready-made programming schedule for the pirate radio operator.
But what role is there for the current media establishment? It can be used as leverage by content producers, as seen when Wikileaks made agreements with major news companies concerning its Afghan War Diary files. And user-generated news will certainly influence established media from the outside as it struggles to adapt to a changing environment. Blogging communities, Twitter, Facebook, and other social networking tools are obviously useful in spreading ideas and creating connections. But when they are used to spread news stories that users find interesting, feedback is provided from users to producers. And the reader who posts the stories that interest her takes a more active role in deciding what is important than she does when viewing the arrangement of newspaper headlines or broadcast airtime.
It is easy to see the negative side of information democracy when establishment media picks up one narrative it finds in the blogosphere and throws its weight behind a particular kind of sensationalism. But the media can pick up on sensationalism from any source and has in the past published the falsehoods of government reports. The new information landscape makes the generation of untruth more accessible, but also makes it easier to counter false claims.
What the current information landscape represents is an inkling of a free society in practice. Cheap startup costs and the distribution of knowledge foster nearly unlimited competition. Trust can be verified by sourcing (which makes news research more participatory), by recommendation from trusted services (which is based on individual choice and reputation, not on legislative mandates), and by peer recommendation. This is good news for those of us who don’t trust the authorities to put our interests ahead of the interests of those who make a living by advising them.
With the spread of knowledge this state of affairs can be brought into other areas of life — from the meeting of basic needs, to the creation of resilient communities that foster individual flourishing, to the most ambitious projects. From the existing information infrastructure we can build up the skills to take care of human needs, and promote while refining the ideas that motivate people to learn and practice these skills.