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It's the reputation, stupid!

Knowledge is power, they say, and being informed makes us more independent. Our hyper-informed, hyper-networked society, of course, indicates the opposite: the increasing level of information does not make us cognitively more autonomous, but rather more dependent on the judgment of other people or artificial rating systems. The information age is entering a new phase, that of reputation. Information is only of value if it has a ranking that is hashed and bears the insignia of a network tribe. We rely on the already filtered, evaluated, commented, shared judgment of others, most of whom we do not even know ourselves.

Reputation as a seal of quality for information

If you ask someone why they believe (or don't believe) in climate change, the most common and plausible answer today is probably because I trust the relevant reports from the media: newspapers, magazines, TV channels, websites. As a rule, we do not read relevant articles in the “International Journal of Climatology”, but rather filtered abstracts from reliable journalists that are suitable for reading. So, if you look closely, our trust is already of second order: we trust journalists who trust researchers. As laypeople, we are hardly in a position to follow the scientific debate firsthand. Therefore, one does not rely so much on the information as on the reputation of the informant. Reputation is the seal of approval for information.

It is therefore no coincidence that numerous acts of sabotage on our information system are aimed specifically at reputation. Conspiracy theories offer a notorious example. They often undermine the reputation of established science. Take the case of the moon landing. A persistent conspiracy hypothesis claims that no one ever set foot on the moon in 1969 and that the entire Appollo program was a huge fake. The originator of this theory, Bill Kaysing, worked for a company that made rocket engines. At his own expense he published his book "We Never Went to the Moon" (1976), a source of never-ending skepticism about the alleged space fraud. Even today, the "Flat Earth Society" is spreading the message that the moon landing was a Hollywood production by Walt Disney, directed by Stanley Kubrick.

The safety net of a reputation system

It is easy to laugh at such hypotheses. However, if you are a little stricter with yourself, you will have to admit that the evidence for your own belief in the moon landing is usually poor. You might remember headlines in the newspapers or TV shows with Bruno Stanek and Eduard “Mond” -Stäuble - all second-hand. So we are not that far removed from the “flat traders”. And yet: why does the sparse evidence base not make us doubt the moon landing? Because we are in the safety net of a reputation system that guarantees the trustworthiness of the information.

Now, however, one must say in the same breath: This guarantor function is beginning to crumble, which can be seen symptomatically in the growing difficulty in arming oneself against disinformation. The technology of computer-generated images now enables deceptively real forgeries: “Deep Fake”. The video that shows Nancy Pelosi, the spokeswoman for the US House of Representatives, drunk, has become known. The “doctored” clip of a - as it turned out - self-declared “political watchdog”.

The new key question "Where does the information come from?"

It is to be expected that deep fakes will spread endemically in everyday life and thus contaminate the flow of information. Such practices undermine a fundamental basis of trust in knowledge: our senses. We rely on them in everyday situations and orientate ourselves on them. As a rule, the senses are not deceptive. Your own eyewitness, for example, is a relatively reliable epistemological authority. Now the new simulation techniques undermine this basic trust more and more. What we see is suspected of being fake a priori.

The key question now is not only “What does this information tell me?”, But also “Where does this information come from?”. The double question should be our intellectual navigational tool in the information universe. In this context, points of reference for integrity play an increasingly important role. Because the principle of enlightenment, that knowledge makes us free, no longer applies in the age of the Internet. If I said at the beginning that the ever easier access to information and knowledge makes us more dependent on the judgment of other people, then I have to specify something about these people. It is not just about authoritative scientists, competent journalists or politicians who are capable of reflection, but to a far greater extent about cannons, bullshitters and weirdos.

Reputation tracking and bullshit identification

And that's a big problem. Today we need a new elementary cultural technique: the ability to identify bullshit. Mature citizens of the digital age should become competent in following the reputation path of information; assess the intentions of those who circulated the information and the views of those authorities who give credibility to the information. Reputation tracking could be called contemporary.

We are not only littered with material, material waste, but also immaterially, with spiritual waste. In this ecology of bullshit, the cognitive ability to identify bullshit at all is of central importance. It largely withers away in the Augean stables of social media. Correspondingly, the technology of manipulation is strengthening and spreading. The irony is obvious: We initially celebrated the Internet as a breakthrough to global communication. Today it turns out to be the machinery of global manipulation.

The ability to identify bullshit should therefore be recognized and recognized as a core component of a contemporary educational concept. “Calling Bullshit” is the title of a new book written by the biologist Carl Bergstrom and the computer scientist Jevin West: naming the bullshit. This is both a beacon and a demanding program. Because the battle cry “Bullshit!” Is not enough against the intellectual littering of the planet. It takes numerous skills to get rid of the rubbish of manipulative information, from being able to read more than 200 characters in the current twittering to the ability to interpret diagrams and statistical numerologies, scientific claims that are only based on correlations, to be met with skepticism, to the point of distrust of technological "solutionism", especially the often exorbitant visions of artificial intelligence. The list goes on.

The message is the massage

One can see the urgency of the question of the reputation of information as a symptom of a deeper social and cultural malaise. Communicating and informing always also means manipulating: The message is the massage. Animals do that too. Ethologists speak of Machiavelli intelligence: tricking, deceiving, taking advantage of. Our current communication behavior gives an inkling of the unsettling character of the wild in a wide range of areas of social life - and that means more and more: in social networks. There is a selection pressure under which one can only survive successfully by manipulating the other. Our ethology seems to be getting closer to that of the other animals. Just watch the monkey Twitter behavior of many human primates. Seen in this light, we must attach eminent cultural importance to the maintenance or re-establishment of a reputation system, to protect ourselves from relapse into the wild. Or maybe it's too late.