Future

Speed And Anonymity On The Internet Is Killing Truth

The great paradox of our time is that we've never had access to so much information, and yet have never been so badly informed.

Connected in the bus
Jorge Eduardo Espinosa

-Essay-

BOGOTA â€" Truth has ceased to matter. In our times, everything depends on speed and efficiency instead.

If the Internet does not give it to you immediately, at the bat of an eyelid, if posts on Facebook exceed a paragraph or comments 140 characters, we start to feel we are losing out, or will be late for something. Where and what? Nobody knows, but just late. It transforms the very notion of time more stressful, and schizophrenic.

And yet, this constant information bombardment requires us to reflect before judging and doubt before hurling charges, or the right to defense before being condemned. And that is not what is happening.

You only need to glance at social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook, where baseless accusations, bald lies, trumped up imagery and fictional visuals concocted are sent around the world, non-stop, every day.

Anyone with Whatsapp, the instant messaging application, knows what I'm talking about, with the constant urgent and (and almost always anonymous) messages "warning" this or "denouncing" that. It all takes on another dimension when something happens like the campaign for the referendum we just had in Colombia, as the messages become louder and more frequent. Those using these communication strategies know that people don't check the news through standard media anymore, and a chain message with a tendencious claim able to boost a prejudice, is both effective and cheap.

Just press Resend

The first fundamental problem with a world built on these messages is the speed at which they spread. There is no reflection or skepticism or pause here, just a mechanical push on the resend button.

Like robots? â€" Photo: Hernán Piñera

We act like robots, or just idiots. The great paradox of our time is that we've never had access to so much information, and yet have never been so badly informed. When the remains of the traditional press question the accuracy or veracity of an anonymous message, the public reacts by accusing the papers of lying or distorting. The fact is, truth doesn't matter any more.

Why are you so indulgent with anonymous messages reaching you via Whatsapp and so critical of press reports? Did you even ask yourself who sent the message, who wrote it, where their interests lie?

The second fundamental problem is the anonymity. At least journalism, which is often rightly criticized for its weaknesses and errors, has a visible face: its editors, contributors, radio or news presenters. Their information is never anonymous and their credibility, a crucial asset of their standing, is always at stake.

But chain messages, videos without authors or anonymous comments have nothing to lose. Their charges can have a vast impact; and even if finally shown to be baseless, the harm is already done.

In the United States, unnamed groups are formed to propagate lies against Muslims and America's first black president. They may send images of Obama with a beard, talking a foreign language; and a poll last year showed that nearly 30% of Americans believe Obama is a Muslim.

There is of course nothing new about conspiratorial fears or spreading lies. As the 3rd century philosopher Porphyry said, lying is far more typical of men than laughing. The novelty is the speed at which the lies now travel, and the tremendous distances they can reach. This makes journalism, struggling and imperfect as always, even more necessary today than ever.

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Economy

European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


-Analysis-

BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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