Why web users are ‘norm entrepreneurs’

Calls to curb misinformation and other abuses on the web – such as a recent plea from web founder Tim Berners-Lee – must rest on the assumption that users have the capacity to discern fact from falsehood. US security officials rely on that premise.

World Wide Web founder Tim Berners-Lee speaks in London in 2014.

The inventor of the World Wide Web, British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee, issued a special plea this week on the 29th anniversary of his creation. In an open letter, he asked web users to “work together” to prevent the internet from being “weaponized” by countries or corporations and used to spread false information.

In the web’s early days, entrepreneurs like Dr. Berners-Lee set the norms of the Digital Age. They championed the web’s open access to vast knowledge. But as cyber risks have spread, such as Russian meddling in other nations’ politics, web users now face the challenge of setting the standards.

In effect, they must become “norm entrepreneurs” and reestablish a respect for truth, transparency, and accountability in each encounter on the web.

Berners-Lee is hardly alone in asking individuals to become more responsible for their thinking and actions. In the United States, the White House is under pressure from Congress to devise a grand strategy for all aspects of cyberspace. In early March, a bipartisan group of senators wrote to President Trump: “Our increased reliance on the internet has created new threats and vulnerabilities to our nation’s infrastructure and our way of life.” They demanded a “cyber doctrine” for the US.

One reason for the delay is a dispute among security officials over how and when to respond to a cyberattack. A US counteroffensive against another Russian misinformation campaign, for example, might ignite an endless string of retaliatory actions. There might be no winner in such a war.

Yet just as important, say top security officials, is that Americans educate themselves about their role in discerning the truth in what they read and share on the web. The more people see “heavy-handed” manipulation of news and also talk about this problem, says Army Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, “the more people may question the information that they see that’s out there.”

Daniel Coats, director of national intelligence, goes even further. “Our job as an intelligence community is to inform the American people of this [issue] so that they ... exercise better judgment in terms of what is real news.”

Government can do only so much, he adds, because “the democratization of cyber capabilities worldwide has enabled and emboldened a broader range of actors to pursue their malign activities against us.” It is not only states such as Russia, North Korea, and Iran that worry the US. “Nonstate actors can be just as capable now as state actors,” says Michael Sulmeyer, a cyber expert at Harvard University.

Web consumers are on the front line of protecting today’s web. “I believe the biggest risk we face as Americans is our own ability to discern reality from nonsense,” wrote Steve Huffman, co-founder of the content-sharing website Reddit, in a message this month. “I wish there was a solution as simple as banning all propaganda, but it’s not that easy.”

With so much information available, web users are being forced to better scrutinize the reputation of information sources – and do so with patience rather than speed. In a 2017 survey by the Barna Group, 39 percent of Americans said they trust news reporters as credible sources while 36 percent said they verify reports by comparing multiple sources. Nearly a third said they trust nobody, only their own instincts. And 27 percent trust family and peers to help them determine if information is reliable.

When the web’s inventor asks for widespread help in fixing the web, he does not assume most people are dupes or victims of their own gullibility. There’s nothing fake about each person’s capability to sift fact from falsehood. Any proposed rule, regulations, or strategy about the web must start from that premise.

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