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Subject: Rheingold's Brainstorms: Disinformation Superhighway? By L. Floridi
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               The Internet as a Disinformation Superhighway?
                            di Luciano Floridi*

     Comments can be sent directly to Luciano.Floridi@wolfson.ox.ac.uk

 Editor's Note: This copyright notice applies only to the article written
 by Luciano Floridi.

 Copyright (c) 1995 by Luciano Floridi.

 Permission is granted for reproduction of this document in any medium, but
 only in whole, for non-commercial purposes, and as long as appropriate
 credit is given to the author and this notice is always included.

 "The broad mass of a nation [...] will more easily fall victim to a big
 lie than to a small one" (Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf 1925)

 "They will grow up with what the psychologists used to call an
 'instinctive' hatred of books and flowers. Reflexes unalterably
 conditioned. They'll be safe from books and botany all their lives"
 (Aldous Huxley, Brave New World)

 1. Overture: the problem

 Nobody could seriously doubt that the unidirectional mass media can be
 very powerful instruments of disinformation. History has already witnessed
 too many horrible events for us to allow ourselves the luxury of such
 futile speculation any longer.[1] What we might do instead is to turn our
 attention to the brave new world of the Internet, and ask whether the
 problem of disinformation might soon afflict the new interactive media as
 well. Suppose that in years to come there will still be a significant
 dissimilarity between passive (one way, or simply W) and interactive (two
 way, or simply WW) media. The management of information online is going to
 affect many aspects of our life increasingly commonly[2], and the
 following three questions will become crucial:
 1) will the Internet too become a powerful means of potential

 And if so,

 2) will disinformation engendered via the Internet differ from other forms
 disinformation engendered via paper and broadcasting media?

 And finally,

 3) if the Internet could become a powerful means of disinformation, is
 anything that can be done to avoid this particular problem or to solve it?
 It is my impression that each of these questions can be answered in the
 positive. This paper's task is to attempt to explain why and in what

 2. The starting point: from questions to assumptions

 The three questions just stated presuppose that:

 I) the Internet is (going to be) a new mass medium; and

 II) because of (i) the Internet cannot avoid the problem of

 We cannot endorse (i) without a proviso which will, I hope, acquire its
 full significance in section 6: nowadays the Internet is really an
 instrument of information and communication only within a socio-cultural
 ilite of a few million people and hence it is better described as a group
 medium rather than a mass medium[3]. And we cannot accept (ii) unless we
 answer two further questions first:

 4) what do we mean by the problem of disinformation? And

 5) is any mass medium - and hence the Internet as well - bound to face it?

 Let us deal with question (4) first.

 3. One step back: six forms of disinformation

 Disinformation arises whenever the process of information is defective.
 This can happen because of:

 a) a lack of objectivity, as in the case of propaganda [4];

 b) a lack of completeness, as in a case of damnatio memoriae;

 c) a lack of pluralism, as in the case of censorship [5].

 Each type can be combined with the other two in more complex and efficient
 forms of disinformation, but this is irrelevant here. More to the point is
 to note that, contrary to what the examples seem to suggest, each form of
 disinformation need not necessarily be intentional. I shall come back to
 this qualification in a moment. But first , let us concentrate on question

 4. Another step back: disinformation as an endogenous problem

 Past analyses of W-media, like newspapers, radio or television, cannot
 merely be extended to the new world of online communication and WW -
 media. We cannot exclude a priori the possibility that technical
 differences between the
 media may give rise to differences in the nature of the disinformation
 they make possible. More explicitly, disinformation via TV may be a
 different phenomenon from disinformation achieved via the Internet, just
 as advertising via the two media differs. We shall see that this is
 actually the case. So we had better keep the two separate and avoid
 confusion. Having granted this point, however, I would contend that we are
 still entitled to use the same conceptual framework, and hence to apply
 the concept of disinformation to the Internet as well, for the following
 reason. The management of information can be affected by three types of
 problems (whether they are ethical, legal or just practical does not
 matter here):

 1) problems arising from what can be done to information throughout its
 lifecycle (creation, storage, retrieval, updating). We find here problems
 arising from possibleloss or damage due to software virus, fire, chemical
 agents, misplacement, theft or the ageing of a particular technology, from
 the lack of physical or magnetic space, from the necessity of
 out-sourcing, from spying, hacking or terrorist attacks, and so forth;

 2) problems arising from what can be done with information.
 Examples here can be as disparate as blackmailing, insider trading,
 infoglut or plagiarism; and

 3) problems concerning both the life-cycle and the use of information.
 Two typical cases are those of pornography and of privacy of

 Disinformation is caused by some form of mishandling of information,
 belongs to
 the third group and is endogenous to any information management system
 (IMS), from the manuscript tradition to the card index of a library, from
 the publication of a scholarly journal to the broadcasting of a popular
 radio program. Now, all media of any kind are IMS, and since we have
 assumed that the Internet is a medium, the consequences are that:

 a) the Internet, today represented mainly by the WWW, cannot avoid the
 problem of disinformation, not just because it is comparable to other W -
 or WW - media - this is superficial - but because it is another particular
 instance of a medium, any medium is an IMS, and any IMS faces
 disinformation for the very reason that IMS constantly run the risk of
 mishandling their documents;

 b) sincedisinformation is an endogenous problem of any IMS, in the case of
 the Internet too it may arise at any time; it cannot merely be evaded but
 must be confronted explicitly.

 5. One side-step: involuntary disinformation

 Given the context of the human management of information, no stage in the
 epistemic process - from the initial creation of data to the final use of
 the corresponding information - is thoroughly transparent. This implies
 that a certain degree of involuntary disinformation (lack of objectivity,
 completeness and pluralism) can occur in any IMS taken into account. With
 a difference, that represents a first answer to question 2. With
 passively-consumed mass media the problem is mainly one of unpremeditated
 creation of disinformation. Whenever information passes from the sender to
 the receiver it runs the risk of being corrupted or mutilated. One can
 think of a medieval copier's oversight , or of the limited space given by
 a TV programme to a particular event. In the case of the Internet, the
 increasing facility and speed with which mono - or multimedia documents
 can be created, manipulated, reproduced and spread makes the problem of
 involuntary diffusion of disinformation more acute. A nice example is
 provided by the message concerning an alleged virus, called "Good Times",
 that keeps on appearing over and over again in many email lists. It's a
 hoax, but overconcerned and unaware users keep on forwarding it so easily
 that it has been impossible to restrain the diffusion of this particular
 disinformation for more than two years now.[6] It is for this reason that
 more and more often email lists which are disinformation-sensitive have
 disclaimers automatically included in their messages, specifying for
 example, that "NEW-LIST announcements are edited from information provided
 by the original submitter. We do NOT verify the technical accuracy nor any
 claims made in the announcements nor do we necessarily agree with them. We
 do not warranty or guarantee any services which might be announced - use
 at your own risk. [...]".[7]

 6. Back to the starting point: disinformation via the Internet now

 Having dealt with unpremeditated forms of disinformation, let us
 concentrate now on voluntary disinformation. Our first question was
 whether the Internet too will become a powerful means of potential
 disinformation. Two views should be distinguished. In spite of some clear
 cases of disinformation[8], at the moment there seem to be no reasons to
 be worried. The Internet has not yet provided us with a powerful means of
 disinformation, especially if we interpret the adjective "powerful" by
 contrasting it to what the unidirectional media enable us to do already.
 Things may stand rather differently when we consider what may happen
 during the first decade of the next millenium. A system of information
 management and communication can generate disinformation with increasing
 efficiency the more the following three conditions are satisfied:

 a.1) if there occurs a dichotomy between the sender, who possesses and
 provides the information, and the receiver, who lacks it. Note that, given
 this gap, disinformation is easier the more authoritative[9] and
 influential its source and the more naive the population it targets;

 a.2) the easier it is, on the sideof the sender, to censor (that is to
 cast out and suppress) other sources of de-disinformation (denials,
 corrigenda and addenda), as quietly as possible, so that the very process
 of censorship does not become a matter of information itself;

 a.3) the more difficult it is, on the side of the receiver, to control the
 level of objectivity, completeness and pluralism of the information.

 The better these three conditions of ignorance, coercion, and impotence
 are fulfilled, the more powerful a mass medium can be in terms of
 producing disinformation. Now, although in different degrees, there have
 been plenty of cases in which the unidirectional mass media have been able
 to satisfy all three conditions rather well. This does not yet hold good
 for the Internet, for three corresponding reasons:

 b.1) there exists, at the moment, a lower degree of imbalance between the
 providers and the users of information. This is owing to two factors. One
 is contingent: the Internet is actually being used by a socio- cultural
 ilite whose members would find it more difficult to disinform one another
 because, to a large extent, this is also the educated ilite that can keep
 the life and flow of information under control. The other is necessary:
 the Internet is interactive and, when compared to other mass media, much
 cheaper. These two factors have the result that, contrary to what happens
 in the case of the passive media, the relation between provider and user
 is interchangeable and can bedirect: every user can become a provider of
 information (a BBS or a WWW page is sufficient), and the transaction
 between provider and user of information does not necessarily require an
 intermediary. If now we put aside the increasing need to delegate the
 certification of the quality of the information exchanged to organizations
 of various types (libraries, universities, publishers, public
 institutions, international organizations, private companies and so
 forth), the growth of a plurality of sources of information enhances mass
 production of information, which in turn should increase a correct (i.e.
 not disinformative) use of it. In short, it is certainly true that the
 chances of successfully spreading disinformation decrease as the number of
 provusers (providers and users) of information increases. The unfortunate
 thing is that this is only half the story, and we shall see shortly that
 matters are a bit more complex.

 b.2) difficulty of censorship
 The wider the plurality of information, the smaller the risks of
 disinformation. A necessary condition for plurality of information is the
 occurrence of a variety of providers. Now the variety of providers is
 opposed, mainly for economical reasons, by monopolistic groups (which in
 turn are opposed, mainly for political reasons, by anti-trust
 legislations), while it is promoted by the increase in the number of
 different types of mass media. We have assumed that the Internet is at
 least a new group medium. This means that its growth, alongside the other
 passive media, has potentially increased the plurality of information, and
 thus reduced the risk of disinformation.

 b.3) Ease of control
 Interactivity also means an opening-up of information system, which
 strives to become constantly available and easily accessible to the
 largest possible number of people in affordable ways. Of course this
 implies more serious difficulties for those who wish to propagate
 disinformation efficiently.

 To summarise: since the Internet is presently an interactive group medium
 used by a restricted ilite who, to a large extent, are capable of
 controlling the world of information, it is also a much less efficient
 instrument of disinformation than any other unidirectional mass medium.

 7. A step into the future: when massive disinformation will be possible
 via the Internet

 Unfortunately, things may easily become more problematic in the future,