The subject of my assembly on Tuesday was the danger of ignorance in an era when anyone with a social media account or a YouTube channel can set themselves up as a broadcaster. At the advent of the Internet age, we were told about the ‘democratisation’ of information. We would no longer have to rely on a small number of publishers to determine what we could read or learn. Suddenly, we had access to a huge treasury of information to which all could contribute. We’ve seen similar developments with our television viewing. When we were children, there were three channels to select from, while we now have a choice of hundreds to entertain and inform us. We have been told repeatedly in our market economy that choice is a good thing. How possibly can I therefore claim that ignorance is on the rise?
The premise that choice is good is ingrained into modern consumerist society. We now have the freedom to make choices denied to our parents and grandparents: over our energy supplier; our telephone company; whether to withdraw cash from our pension to spend now rather than wait for retirement. Some might argue whether these freedoms are positive. Is it responsible, for instance, to let people spend their pension pot at the risk of suffering penury in retirement?
When it comes to television, I really enjoy having the choice of channels that focus on my interests. There is always something that I will find interesting when I start to channel-hop. However, quantity and quality are different things, and I am well aware that the quality of programming is highly variable. When we were children, there were only three channels, but they were well-funded. BBC and ITN were synonymous with the highest standards of journalism and we felt that we could rely on the accuracy and impartiality of their news broadcasts. There are still excellent news broadcasters in the UK, but the democratisation of the media provided by the internet means that the younger generation in particular, are more likely to inform themselves through social media and online news sites. The overheads for such enterprises are low, as is often quality control. When there is a breaking news event, Twitter and Facebook are far ahead of the traditional media. While the BBC or The Times gets a journalist on the ground in order to verify its information and present a balanced picture, members of the public use the powerful devices in their pockets to broadcast their unique and (by definition) unbalanced perspective. We have started to learn in recent years how easy it is for a micro-broadcaster to use media feeds to create a ‘fake news’ story to suit its social or political agenda.
I wonder increasingly whether less is indeed more. A parallel exists in how our sons access information for academic purposes. When I returned from school with a homework task to research, my only resource was the 12-volume encyclopedia that by middle-class parents had dutifully built up in weekly instalments. Today, students have an embarrassment of riches to select from, but again reliability is an issue for them. We know as teachers that our challenge is to make the boys more discerning to ensure that they look beyond Wikipedia and use the first-class resources and databases we subscribe to on their behalf. However, the average internet surfer is not so judicious over its use. Previously, the encyclopaedia had been checked and edited comprehensively by professionals and we could have confidence in its accuracy. Now it is much easier to be duped into believing complete fiction, as the sheer size of the worldwide web makes it uncontrollable.
As parents we have to be conscious of the risks of the social media age. Facebook and Instagram work on algorithms that are designed to give us more of what we like. In recent years, Brexit supporters have been fed a constant diet of anti-EU opinion. In contrast, Remain voters see only posts that back up their existing views. Algorithms have helped to make social media into an echo chamber, which explains the polarisation that we are seeing in all aspects of our society. In the US, someone who consumes his news via Facebook and only watches a single TV broadcaster will not get a balanced view of current affairs.
Our boys need to understand that, if they are getting their information about the world from Instagram or Facebook, they are not necessarily receiving a balanced picture. In my assembly the other day, I gave two real-world examples of how social media-sponsored ‘fake news’ was making the public more ignorant. Thirty years ago, common diseases such as mumps and measles had been virtually destroyed through vaccines. However, the anti-vaxxer movement has thrived on the spread of un-scientific rumour about vaccines causing unconnected illnesses. As a consequence, thousands in the USA and Britain are refusing to vaccinate their children, with the result that these tamed illnesses are returning and causing unnecessary suffering, and even deaths. Similarly, I was reading last week that a campaign to vaccinate Pakistani children against polio is failing because Islamic fundamentalists in Pakistan have spread rumours via social media that vaccination is a Western conspiracy to sterilise its children. There are therefore real signs that our algorithm-controlled echo chambers in the media are making us more ignorant.
Education is the antidote to ignorance. In the classroom, deep factual knowledge underpins progress in all fields. At LGS, we also understand that we must equip our boys with the discernment to make good judgements throughout their lives. The best remedy is for us all to be aware of the risks of misinformation. Our sons must be sceptical, and conscious of the possibility of bias in what they read online. They must actively seek out sources that they trust (such as the BBC dare I say) to validate the truth. The next time that ‘fake news’ is in the headlines, please seize the opportunity to probe your sons’ instincts and reactions.