WWW at 30: the worldwide swamp

Next month will be the 30th anniversary of the world wide web. In 1989, who would have thought the web would touch every aspect of people’s lives – not only in a good way but also in ways that seem to undermine the fabric of society? An elegant way for researchers across the globe to collaborate, has evolved from a platform for free speech into a swamp seeping disinformation, hate, paedophilia and online bullying.

For instance, the BBC’s Countryfile, which was broadcast on Sunday 17th February reported on how illegal gambling rings live stream blood sports like hare coursing and cock fighting over Facebook and YouTube. And on today’s web, it seems open debate and fair comment can lead to a tirade of abuse targeted at anyone who appears to have a different opinion.

People must understand they are being nudged

The DCMS’ Fake News and Disinformation report discusses at length how easy it is for organisations to target social media users en masse in the same way online marketing campaigns are used to sell and recommend products.

The techniques have become increasingly more sophisticated. Behavioural economics uses so-called “nudge” technology, to try to influence people. It seems the ability to target individuals online through the use of carefully crafted online advertising campaigns with subliminal messaging is moving beyond the big marketeers and state agencies with a subversive agenda. Now, a service called TheSpinner claims: “TheSpinner enables you to subconsciously influence a specific person, by controlling the content on the websites he or she usually visits.” Sold as a service starting at just $29.00, anyone can sign up and target another individual, such as in the run up to a marriage proposal, by ensuring their special person sees a series of 10 related articles when they are online. “People need to be aware this technology can be used,” warns Bridget Kenyon, global chief information security officer at Thales, mirroring one of the findings in the DCMS report.

Digital literacy is key

Facebook, YouTube, et al, take the original premise of the web and democratise information sharing to the point that anybody can post an update, image or video anywhere and at any time. Anyone can receive this post, no matter how irrelevant or inappropriate it is. However as the DCMS recommends: “Digital literacy should be a fourth pillar of education. People need to be resilient about their relationship with such sites, particular around what they read and what they write.”

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