Building up Analytical ThinkingOct 04, 2021
When a country is struck by disaster, whether natural or human-induced, those involved, either directly or indirectly, in the associated policy-making processes are likely to become the targets of some form of condemnation in the various public information platforms. This is true not only of politicians, but administrators or even staff. Moreover, such recrimination often begins before a careful investigation of what actually happened has been conducted.
In particular, the Web has undermined the civility of public discussion in the West. In part this is due to individuals (aka “trolls”) who seemingly are everywhere, have too much spare time, and thus exert a disproportionate effect on the discourse. Yet in many countries this phenomenon is driven by websites and newspapers that systematically deform the thinking of others. They do not attack ideas but rather people. They stoke disdain for people based on labels, their place of origin, their physical characteristics, even their illnesses. In a civil society, this should not happen. Criticizing is a right, and even a duty at times, but insulting is an offense. Yet it is common because it is effective; it appeals to a large part of public opinion and can advance public careers.
Much has been written about disinformation campaigns. In our past blogs, you will find a lot of interesting remarks about this problem that afflicts our society. The criticisms of this decline in civility, this barbarization of public discussion, seemingly have fallen on deaf ears, and few commentators have offered a real solution to the problem.
For several years a high-level group of experts has been assisting and advising the European Commission (EC) in tackling online disinformation. To that end, in 2018, the EC presented an in-depth and documented report on the rampant phenomenon of fake news and disinformation on the Internet and its social and political implications, also offering a sound approach to solving the problem. (see EU Report) Perhaps the most interesting aspect of it, one that might be easily missed because we would take it for granted, concerns the effect of disinformation on our security. Online disinformation is cited as a major threat to the security of our societies and personal freedoms. The revelations from the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica case have clearly demonstrated how personal data can be exploited in election campaigns and threaten the democratic process. Precisely for this reason, the European Commission considers the fight against online disinformation as essential for the protection of European values and security.
Given the complexity of the matter and the rapid evolution of the digital world, the European Commission has proposed a global policy response, capable of continuously monitoring and evaluating the phenomenon of disinformation and adjusting political objectives in the light of its evolution. Specifically, among the general principles and objectives to combat the phenomenon of disinformation, the EC sees, inter alia, the transparency of the origin of information and the way it is produced, the promotion of the diversity of information, the credibility providing an indication of its reliability, increased media literacy with broad stakeholder involvement and cooperation from public authorities, as keys to addressing the problem. Of course, one cannot imagine that a single solution can solve all the challenges related to disinformation.
Those in a field during an emergency crisis typically do not care about such political disinformation campaigns, since their focus and energy is devoted to day-to-day calamity management. For them, meeting the immediate human needs at a tactical level is more important than worrying about the discourse at the strategic level. However, the proverbial bug in their ear about the possibility of an error on their part exacerbating the crisis may influence their attitude and behaviour in the field, even though this should not be the case. How can this be avoided? The answer lies in one of the measures cited in the EC report, which is fostering greater media literacy that would help the public to recognize online disinformation and regard it with a critical eye. This is easier said than done. Yet “Analytical Thinking” (AT) has always been a critical facet in our societies. There is no AT course in this world that can inject analytical thinking into your mind like a vaccine vs. a virus.
A German friend of mine whose father had lived in the Nazi period and who had had to endure that horrible dictatorship told me one day "... my father always encouraged me to read everything, to study and analyze what was happening from every perspective, and form a personal opinion and not to believe to what could be imposed by ideologies. Remember son – he repeated to me – dictatorships can take everything away from you, make a clean table around you, but they will never be able to take away the culture you have built for yourself." This is certainly a good lesson learnt from experience.