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Putting out digital wildfires? Global Risks 2013

Managing our ignorance is one of the most challenging tasks appealing each of us in the Knowledge Society.  Or said in another way, the over-linked society we live in produces a huge amount of information or misinformation through numerous devices creating a sort of spider’s web where we can easily feel lost. This complexity can give us a feeling of confusion and the loss of sense of orientation and even can wreak havoc in the real world.

 

That is why the World Economic Forum in its recently published report Global Risks 2013 includes a very relevant chapter on Digital Wildfires.  This inspiring report that deserves to be carefully read begin in the section 2 Digital Wildfires in a Hyperconnected World somehow with part of the solution preventing these kind of risks.

 

“In 1938, when radio had become widespread, thousands of Americans confused an adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel War of the Worlds with a news broadcast and jammed police station phone lines in the panicked belief that the United States had been invaded by Martians”

 

The report continues saying “It is difficult to imagine a radio broadcast causing comparably widespread misunderstanding today”. Why? Listeners have enough tools to interpret these pieces of information. We are used to this “old media” and we have time to rethink about what have been said. Our immediate response is not awaited. Additionally, the radio is a “one to many” media and broadcasters have developed a sense of responsibility, legal and ethical, on the content they provide. Thereby we are able to provide a context to a specific piece of information without losing the general vision and the orientation. In short, our response can be more accurate to the real world.

 

In contrast, today we have to deal with what Jürgen Habermas called “the new unembraceable”.  The Internet is a communication channel of “many to many” where information or misinformation is share instantaneously. In this context it is also important to note that western societies are based on bonds of trust that have allowed us to be more efficient in our individual and collective lives. Often we want to trust the information we read, listen or watch in our personal devices and simultaneously we feel asked to react.  How many times we have heard the statement “It is true, I have read it in the Internet” or “I received several tweets saying that … It is true”  Rumors achieve the category of information and the consequences in some cases are damaging (libel, defamation, economic loss ...) and even dangerous.  The complexity of our “information environment” would lead to confusion and undesirable outcomes.  Confusion is at the end of the day a mismanaging of the complexity.

 

However, little by little we are learning how to manage this new universe of digital communication been more active, e.g. corroborating the information or simply being more skeptical and critic and even being fully aware of the limits of our knowledge, i.e. managing our ignorance, but the risks of dangerous wildfires are still there.

 

How can we put out digital wildfires? The Global Risk Report 2013 invites us to explore some complex routes to prevent digital wildfires.  Some examples:

 

Firstly, it proposes legal restrictions on online anonymity and freedom of speech.

 

Secondly, evolve a global digital ethos of responsibility among generators and consumers of social media and a “healthy skepticism” as we have developed with other traditional media.

 

Thirdly, become more literate in assessing the reliability and bias of resources.

 

In short, all stakeholders are called to start the discussion on how to prevent the risks posed by the digital wildfires. It is a complex process given the nature of the digital universe, however the report contribute rightly to this process by an accurate analysis, precise question and a project across the globe.

 

Be active preventing risks posed by digital wildfires and contribute to a safer world!

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Lourdes Tejedor / @madrid2day

Telefónica Public Policy & Telefónica España Regulatory teams