The debate about “fake news” and the “post-truth” society we now supposedly inhabit has become the epistemological version of a feeding frenzy: so much heat, so little light. The failure to appreciate that the profitability, if not the entire business model, of both Google and Facebook depends critically on them not taking responsibility for what passes through their servers. So hoping that these companies will somehow fix the problem is like persuading turkeys to look forward to Christmas.
What we learned in 2016 was the depth of the hole that digital technology has enabled us to dig for ourselves. We’re now in so deep that we can barely see out of it. Liberal democracy could be facing an existential threat, for it’s not clear that it can endure if its public sphere becomes completely polluted by falsehoods, misapprehensions, ignorance, prejudice, conspiracy theories and hatred.
In that sense, we are confronted by the question that obsessed the young Walter Lippmann in the early decades of the 20th century: was it possible for a complex, industrialised society to remain a democracy when the vast mass of its citizens were unable to comprehend the decisions that had to be made by government in their name?