On media, tech and geopolitics

January 16, 2023 14:42
Photo: Reuters

I was invited to address the Harvard-Sciences Po Conference last Saturday; the convenors had wanted a keynote on the intersection of media, technology, and geopolitics – and thus I obliged, with a forty-minute speech that encapsulates some of my more recent thinking on the subject matter. The following constitutes a broad skeleton to the talk:

On truth. A new ‘kind’ of ‘truth’ is emerging – a type that straddles the divide between the true and false; quasi-truths bear sufficient grains of truth within them to come across as both plausible and authentic. Yet through a combination of misdirection, deception, and partial concealment, quasi-truths successfully convince their consumers of claims that are not true. Under geopolitical fragmentation and great power rivalry, quasi-truths are coming to the forefront of what I call the global contest over truth.

On decentralisation. The history of contemporary media and journalism is best defined as having undergone at least six stages – local and domestic, national and systemic, politicisation through introduction of funding and donation, multi-media diversification, rise of social and grassroots media, and, finally, what I term the process of recentralisation. Nefarious actors – state or non-state – have come to exploit the devolved and fragmented nature of social media as a space for advancing their own interests. Grassroots social movements and contentious politics are not, as it turns out, wholly decentralised.

On power. Some say the media produce power. Others suggest that powers control the media. Yet the core thrust undergirding this era is that the media are power. How should we conceptualise power? We should think about power through both lenses of influence (cf. Lukes, over decisions, agenda, and preferences), and collective deliberation (over the polis and public space). The media can empower and strengthen political identities and partisanships, bolster echo chambers, though – if employed appropriately – can serve to cut through silos too.

On AI. The AI race extends far beyond the race over AGI, semiconductors, and data. AI is germane not just in the spheres of defense, labour automation, and biomedical technology – but also in terms of ability to mould and shape our understanding of the truth. Regulating AI is necessary but insufficient as a means of regulating misinformation. We should be wary of the likelihood of AI development to lock in and thus amplify bad decisions made by bad actors today. Beware the rise of media-shaping AI (think ChatGPT, deepfaking technology).

On agency. We must not be defeated by techno-pessimism. It’s high time to be techno-pragmatists – we should think more creatively about the future of journalism, of reclaiming the spaces of truth and responsibility from social media algorithms and large media conglomerates that comprise non-colluding forces that collectively engineer our shared realities. Streamlining and democratising news production and consumption should go hand-in-hand with empowering fact-checkers, truth-verifiers, and regulators in holding social media platforms and producers to account. Beware authoritarian regimes that manipulate information, but also beware democratic politicians who invoke their seeming legitimacy to validate and bolster non-truths, mis-truths, and quasi-truths.

On truth and authenticity. We have political and civic obligations towards the truth, justice, and authenticity. Writing is a vehicle and form of justice. We must come to juggle and navigate between threats of censorship on one hand, and of excessive information on the other hand. More importantly, as politicians and governments seek to distort our understanding of our authentic selves in order to amplify their partisan and ethnonationalist agenda, we must remain extra vigilant and fight back against those who have no respect for the truth – our truths.

On the era of geopolitical resurgence. This is an age of geopolitics – a comeback by power struggles and high politics. The ever-pervasive influences and presence of geopolitical considerations are not something that we should tacitly accept, or ignore (at our own peril!). Instead, we must be alert – “woke”, even, and work in conjunction with fellow citizens in restoring a degree of commonality, co-ownership, and community to the public spaces we occupy. The best antidote to mendacity is not the truth, for truths could well be drowned and wiped out by the more boisterous and appealing quasi-truths; the best antidote is rebuilding trust between those who deserve and merit trust – and who must support one another. We, must support one another.

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Assistant Professor, HKU