The right to information is one where the will of the individual has little value. Societies have the responsibility to ensure — or even enforce — this right because the subject’s unwillingness to accept such a right compromises others’ rights. It is not a license for governments to act as the universal “enforcer”, quite the opposite: the state is the very last player that should intervene unilaterally. Other civil societies’ players need to address and embrace the issue.
When we talk about the right to information, we objectively address the transparency of channels and sources that enable audiences to make decisions freely. In this aspect, once considered the final equaliser of the freedom of speech, the Internet could not represent a greater danger. The Web’s architecture allowed the creation of clusters that lock segments of the public into frantic feedback where bad actors can set the tone, pace and, quite often, the actions that citizens should decide to take or not.
The polarisation processes’ that are taking place in most societies that are not failed democracies or open dictatorships are all bound by the same condition: the ability of one of the actors to reaffirm distorted versions of the truth. Truth can be addressed by different lenses but is ultimately connected to a very similar set of interpretations, the ones previously undisputedly called “facts”.
Facts did not cease to exist. In fact (no puns intended), they are the foundations of all democracies. Facts are the foundations of the system of representations where humanity stands. Many different observers in the world can report these facts following conditions that all responsible actors agree with.
The task of establishing who these observers are is critical. The fragmentation caused by the digitisation of information systems brought the previous process down, and the market — not society — has replaced it with a new one. Now, the gatekeepers have unmatched power (something one might argue that the former process had too) and the wrong incentives to perform this critical task. The new gatekeepers are market-driven entities that serve their shareholders only.
The problem above is an architecture problem. Capitalism was not supposed to have organisations with power enough to re-shape and manipulate the game. There should be controls and balances to force even the big players to perform healthy sanity checks. Google, Facebook and all the other giants do not have spread of disinformation as a goal. They have even rules to manage it under certain conditions, but their business models make the off-limit areas too enticing to decline revenues potentially linked to unethical activities (which are very difficult to define). It is too naive to think corporations will abide by the law in all cases and too much of a conspiracy theory to believe they have an active interest in pursuing tainted money only.
Turning back to the right of information: we face an incredible difficulty because, as polarisation reached toxic levels, not only trolls and radical individuals seek confrontation, sometimes angry and even violent. People and organisations known for the readiness to engage in civil debate let themselves dive into the hate pool that digital mediation has become. Only a fraction of the audience realises that there is very little availability to compromise. Ensure the right to information now may mean enforce the right to information. It may mean start an unsolvable confrontation, as one or more parts are almost literally (and sometimes literally) fighting each other. They are not intended to begin the debate (let alone seek to compromise).
Society is not living in distraught for the first time concerning the information. Countless wars happened following information manipulation. It is the first time that it is manifesting in such a fractured, albeit structured way.
Mass media and its bottlenecks were tools for political use, but they also could keep the system more accountable. We are already feeling the foundations of democracy crack, but it is still not too late to fight back. Civil society can create ways to decentralise the information checks, anonymise participation and promote passive validation (which can significantly decrease bias), among other ways to normalise peaks and bottoms. Failure to do that will mean consequences going from economic slowdown to omnipresent confrontation. We are not there yet, but we can glimpse how deep this rabbit hole can go.