The Internet as a Disinformation Superhighway?
di Luciano Floridi*
Comments can be sent directly to Luciano.Floridi@wolfson.ox.ac.uk
Editor's Note: This copyright notice applies only to the article
written by Luciano Floridi.
Copyright (c) 1995 by Luciano Floridi.
Permission is granted for reproduction of this document in any medium, but only in whole, for non-commercial purposes, and as long as appropriate credit is given to the author and this notice is always included.
"The broad mass of a nation [...] will more easily fall victim to a big lie than to a small one" (Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf 1925)
"They will grow up with what the psychologists used to call an 'instinctive' hatred of books and flowers. Reflexes unalterably conditioned. They'll be safe from books and botany all their lives" (Aldous Huxley, Brave New World)
1. Overture: the problem
Nobody could seriously doubt that the unidirectional mass media can be very
powerful instruments of disinformation. History has already witnessed too many
horrible events for us to allow ourselves the luxury of such futile
speculation any longer. What we might do instead is to turn our attention to
the brave new world of the Internet, and ask whether the problem of
disinformation might soon afflict the new interactive media as well. Suppose
that in years to come there will still be a significant dissimilarity between
passive (one way, or simply W) and interactive (two way, or simply WW) media.
The management of information online is going to affect many aspects of our
life increasingly commonly, and the following three questions will become
1) will the Internet too become a powerful means of potential disinformation?
And if so,
2) will disinformation engendered via the Internet differ from other forms of
disinformation engendered via paper and broadcasting media?
3) if the Internet could become a powerful means of disinformation, is there
anything that can be done to avoid this particular problem or to solve it?
It is my impression that each of these questions can be answered in the
positive. This paper's task is to attempt to explain why and in what sense.
2. The starting point: from questions to assumptions
The three questions just stated presuppose that:
I) the Internet is (going to be) a new mass medium; and
II) because of (i) the Internet cannot avoid the problem of disinformation.
We cannot endorse (i) without a proviso which will, I hope, acquire its full
significance in section 6: nowadays the Internet is really an instrument of
information and communication only within a socio-cultural élite of a few
million people and hence it is better described as a group medium rather
than a mass medium. And we cannot accept (ii) unless we answer two
further questions first:
4) what do we mean by the problem of disinformation? And
5) is any mass medium - and hence the Internet as well - bound to face it?
Let us deal with question (4) first.
3. One step back: six forms of disinformation
Disinformation arises whenever the process of information is defective.
This can happen because of:
a) a lack of objectivity, as in the case of propaganda ;
b) a lack of completeness, as in a case of damnatio memoriae;
c) a lack of pluralism, as in the case of censorship .
Each type can be combined with the other two in more complex and efficient
forms of disinformation, but this is irrelevant here. More to the point is to
note that, contrary to what the examples seem to suggest, each form of
disinformation need not necessarily be intentional. I shall come back to this qualification in a moment. But first , let us concentrate on question (5).
4. Another step back: disinformation as an endogenous problem
Past analyses of W-media, like newspapers, radio or television, cannot
merely be extended to the new world of online communication and WW - media. We cannot exclude a priori the possibility that technical differences between the
media may give rise to differences in the nature of the disinformation they
make possible. More explicitly, disinformation via TV may be a different
phenomenon from disinformation achieved via the Internet, just as advertising
via the two media differs. We shall see that this is actually the case. So
we had better keep the two separate and avoid confusion. Having granted this
point, however, I would contend that we are still entitled to use the same
conceptual framework, and hence to apply the concept of disinformation to the
Internet as well, for the following reason. The management of information can
be affected by three types of problems (whether they are ethical, legal or just
practical does not matter here):
1) problems arising from what can be done to information throughout its
lifecycle (creation, storage, retrieval, updating).
We find here problems arising from possibleloss or damage due to software
virus, fire, chemical agents, misplacement, theft or the ageing of a particular
technology, from the lack of physical or magnetic space, from the necessity of
out-sourcing, from spying, hacking or terrorist attacks, and so forth;
2) problems arising from what can be done with information.
Examples here can be as disparate as blackmailing, insider trading, infoglut
or plagiarism; and
3) problems concerning both the life-cycle and the use of information.
Two typical cases are those of pornography and of privacy of communication.
Disinformation is caused by some form of mishandling of information, belongs to
the third group and is endogenous to any information management system (IMS),
from the manuscript tradition to the card index of a library, from the
publication of a scholarly journal to the broadcasting of a popular radio
program. Now, all media of any kind are IMS, and since we have assumed that the
Internet is a medium, the consequences are that:
a) the Internet, today represented mainly by the WWW, cannot avoid the problem
of disinformation, not just because it is comparable to other W - or WW - media -
this is superficial - but because it is another particular instance of a
medium, any medium is an IMS, and any IMS faces disinformation for the very
reason that IMS constantly run the risk of mishandling their
b) sincedisinformation is an endogenous problem of any IMS, in the case of the
Internet too it may arise at any time; it cannot merely be evaded but must be
5. One side-step: involuntary disinformation
Given the context of the human management of information, no stage in
the epistemic process - from the initial creation of data to the final use of
the corresponding information - is thoroughly transparent. This implies that a
certain degree of involuntary disinformation (lack of objectivity,
completeness and pluralism) can occur in any IMS taken into account. With a
difference, that represents a first answer to question 2. With
passively-consumed mass media the problem is mainly one of unpremeditated
creation of disinformation. Whenever information passes from the sender to
the receiver it runs the risk of being corrupted or mutilated. One can think
of a medieval copier's oversight , or of the limited space given by a TV
programme to a particular event. In the case of the Internet, the increasing
facility and speed with which mono - or multimedia documents can be created,
manipulated, reproduced and spread makes the problem of involuntary diffusion
of disinformation more acute. A nice example is provided by the message
concerning an alleged virus, called "Good Times", that keeps on appearing over
and over again in many email lists. It's a hoax, but overconcerned and unaware
users keep on forwarding it so easily that it has been impossible to restrain
the diffusion of this particular disinformation for more than two years
now. It is for this reason that more and more often email lists which are
disinformation-sensitive have disclaimers automatically included in their
messages, specifying for example, that "NEW-LIST announcements are edited from
information provided by the original submitter. We do NOT verify the technical
accuracy nor any claims made in the announcements nor do we necessarily agree
with them. We do not warranty or guarantee any services which might be announced - use at your own risk. [...]".
6. Back to the starting point: disinformation via the Internet now
Having dealt with unpremeditated forms of disinformation, let us
concentrate now on voluntary disinformation. Our first question was whether
the Internet too will become a powerful means of potential disinformation. Two
views should be distinguished. In spite of some clear cases of
disinformation, at the moment there seem to be no reasons to be worried. The
Internet has not yet provided us with a powerful means of disinformation,
especially if we interpret the adjective "powerful" by contrasting it to what the unidirectional media enable us to do already. Things may stand rather
differently when we consider what may happen during the first decade
of the next millenium.
A system of information management and communication can generate
disinformation with increasing efficiency the more the following three
conditions are satisfied:
a.1) if there occurs a dichotomy between the sender, who possesses and provides
the information, and the receiver, who lacks it. Note that, given this gap,
disinformation is easier the more authoritative and influential its source
and the more naive the population it targets;
a.2) the easier it is, on the sideof the sender, to censor (that is to cast out
and suppress) other sources of de-disinformation (denials, corrigenda and
addenda), as quietly as possible, so that the very process of censorship does
not become a matter of information itself;
a.3) the more difficult it is, on the side of the receiver, to control the
level of objectivity, completeness and pluralism of the information.
The better these three conditions of ignorance, coercion, and impotence are fulfilled, the more powerful a mass medium can be in terms of producing
disinformation. Now, although in different degrees, there have been plenty of
cases in which the unidirectional mass media have been able to satisfy all
three conditions rather well. This does not yet hold good for the Internet,
for three corresponding reasons:
b.1) there exists, at the moment, a lower degree of imbalance between the
providers and the users of information.
This is owing to two factors. One is contingent: the Internet is actually being
used by a socio- cultural élite whose members would find it more difficult to
disinform one another because, to a large extent, this is also the educated
élite that can keep the life and flow of information under control. The other
is necessary: the Internet is interactive and, when compared to other mass
media, much cheaper. These two factors have the result that, contrary to what
happens in the case of the passive media, the relation between provider and
user is interchangeable and can bedirect: every user can become a
provider of information (a BBS or a WWW page is sufficient), and the
transaction between provider and user of information does not necessarily
require an intermediary. If now we put aside the increasing need to delegate
the certification of the quality of the information exchanged to organizations
of various types (libraries, universities, publishers, public institutions,
international organizations, private companies and so forth), the growth of a
plurality of sources of information enhances mass production of information,
which in turn should increase a correct (i.e. not disinformative) use of it.
In short, it is certainly true that the chances of successfully spreading
disinformation decrease as the number of provusers
(providers and users) of
information increases. The unfortunate thing is that this is only half the
story, and we shall see shortly that matters are a bit more complex.
b.2) difficulty of censorship
The wider the plurality of information, the smaller the risks of
disinformation. A necessary condition for plurality of information is the
occurrence of a variety of providers. Now the variety of providers is opposed,
mainly for economical reasons, by monopolistic groups (which in turn are
opposed, mainly for political reasons, by anti-trust legislations), while it is
promoted by the increase in the number of different types of mass media. We
have assumed that the Internet is at least a new group medium. This means that
its growth, alongside the other passive media, has potentially increased the
plurality of information, and thus reduced the risk of disinformation.
b.3) Ease of control
Interactivity also means an opening-up of information system, which strives to
become constantly available and easily accessible to the largest possible
number of people in affordable ways. Of course this implies more serious
difficulties for those who wish to propagate disinformation efficiently.
To summarise: since the Internet is presently an interactive group
medium used by a restricted élite who, to a large extent, are capable of
controlling the world of information, it is also a much less efficient
instrument of disinformation than any other unidirectional mass
7. A step into the future: when massive disinformation will be possible via the Internet
Unfortunately, things may easily become more problematic in the future, for
reasons connected to two variables - the number of provusers and the physical
integration of the various mass media into a unique digital instrument - and a
constant factor, represented by the interactive technology. The three reasons
can be presented schematically thus:
c.1) there will be the return of a certain gap between information providers
and information users.
This is due to the increase in the number of provusers,
which is already causing a new fragmentation of the electronic agorà. There
is a "physiological limit" to the globality of interactive information, and the Internet reached it in 1994. To give an example, nobody today would be
able to control, or even just take part in, the thousands of e-lists active all
over the world. Now the fragmentation of the society of provusers into a
mosaic of interest groups implies the reappearance on a horizontal scale, as
it were, of the dichotomy between provider and user of information, and thus a
new increase in the possibilities for disinformation; - an increase in the
number of attempts to effect disinformation via the network. The more people
are online, the more likely it becomes that some of them will have the desire
and the technical capacities (mass interaction) to disinform on an
international scale with some success; - disinformation via the network to
become more interesting. Very soon, the number of people on the Internet will
be high enough to justify the effort needed to disinform them, exactly in the
same way that the growth of the number of provusers will increasingly attract
the attention of advertising companies;
c.2) digital integration
Insofar as the process of integration and digital harmonisation of the various
mass media will succeed in pulling down the technological barriers still
existing between them, it will also weaken the advantages arising from a
plurality of types of mass media and hence of information.Thus it will
increase the risks connected with the emergence of monopolies, which will in
turn potentially facilitate the spreading of disinformation;
c.3) the development of interactivity
Interactive mass media could give rise to
self-disinformation, i.e. a new form of personal disinformation which has so
far remained largely a potential problem. This is a second way in which
disinformation engendered via WW-media differs from disinformation engendered
via W- media (see question 2). Today we are subject to a broad range of
information, whether we like it or not. We usually absorb, in a passive way,
quite extensive blocks of ready-to-consume information: a whole book, a
newspaper, a periodical, an entire radio programme, the whole news on TV, a
cinema season and so forth. And while the transformation of mass media into
interactive media goes some way towards solving this problem, it also gives
rise to new risks. Soon we may be able to personalise the information we need
or wish to use, filtering and adjusting it to our tastes (information
tailoring). And this means that the possibility will arise of listening only
to the few sources we have tailored to our preferences, on a limited number of
topics, and with a very specific angle of interpretation. But we shall run far
greater risks of disinformation within such a comfortable data niche than
those people who nowadays read only the newspaper of their own political
party. Believing ourselves to be more and better informed, we would be
increasingly conditioned by our idiosyncrasies.
8. Finale allegro ma non troppo: three things that can be done
The risks I have just analysed are only possibilities which have to be balanced
against the three points I made before in favour of a non-disinformative use
of the Internet. For example, interactivity will always remain an easier and
more democratic way of exercising forms of de- disinformation (at least as long
as Harry's wishes are duly fulfilled). But even if we limit our attention
only to the problems and hence to our third question, I believe it will be
possible to deal with them successfully if the following strategies are
d.1) Quality certification
The lack of balance between what is becoming available online and what can be
examined by each provuser brings us to the problem of establishing services
that can test and certify the integrity and quality of the information in
question, and promote its plurality. I have already dwelt on this point in
another article, and here I shall limit myself to repeating the conclusions
reached in that context. The problem of disinformation can be solved, at
least partially, by relying on the interactive nature of the new medium, but
this will be possible only if efficient instruments are implemented in order
to monitor the information available and hence secure:
1) the reliability, integrity and plurality of the
2) constant access to the digital macrocosm for the
largest number of people (universal right to the production and use of
3) a constantly updated map of the digital universe of information available
Only from the perspective of these tasks can the similarity and importance of
two recent phenomena be appreciated. The first is the renewed presence, in the
field of information management, of academic institutions, which have started
to work as vital centres of production and evaluation of online information,
though not yet as quality controllers. The second is the appearance of
commercial services to meet provusers' epistemic needs:search engines, on which paying sponsors advertise their products or display their logos, are
increasingly commonly helping users who are lost in an ocean of information,
and satisfying,at least to some extent, their need for a constantly updtaed
map of the digital domain. What has not been done at all yet - and this is no
small task - is to intervene in the nature of the documents available via the
Internet in order to grant them the full status of information. Nowadays no
newspaper, academic journal or news programme would include an explicit
disclaimer of accountability for the information provided. The Internet has
not yet reached this minimal level of reliability, as the CNN
Web business service shows.
In the face of the process
of integration and digital harmonisation of the various mass media, the best
remedy is the promotion of plurality of information. Technology has already
made its contribution. Today, practically anybody can become a craftsman of
information on the Internet, at least in theory. But the real conflict will
take place in the field of the great monopolies. And what has happened during
1995 in the United States shows that the first round has been lost by social
and cultural interests and won by economic ones.
d.3) Individual education
Self-disinformation - ignoring information, or being accustomed to knowing
things only in a distorted manner - - is the easiest way humanity knows to
survive the daily pressure of reality on the mind. For reasons that are mainly
technological, our mass media have so far implicitly taken into account this
negative anthropology and, to quote the famous passage from Luke 14,23, they
have "forced us to enter" into the world of information. But when technological limits disappear, it will be up to us to overcome our mental inertia and embrace, deliberately, the Kantian and enlightened sapere aude that today is
forced upon us from without. Technology sharpens the problems, but the
fundamental questions remain human and social. It is a rather trivial
conclusion, I am aware, but it will be political power and the way in which
the new generations are educated that will determine whether the interactive
mass media of the future will be better or worse than the present. There is
nothing new under the sun, to stay with the biblical context.
END OF THE BALLET
Wolfson College, Oxford, OX2 6UD, UK
 Holocaust Internet Sites. You may wish to have a
look at the Institute for
Historical Review . "Certainly the best-known and most controversial
aspect of the IHR's work has been its treatment of the Holocaust issue." (from the home page). Simon Wiesenthal Center
"January 12, 1996, Wiesenthal Center Calls on Internet
Providers To Adopt
Voluntary Standard of Ethics. [...] In the wake of the growing number of
organized hate groups espousing racism, antisemitism, violence and mayhem on
the World Wide Web, the Simon Wiesenthal Center has called upon companies
providing Internet hosting services to adopt voluntary acceptable-use
guidelines that would terminate services to individuals or groups who incite
mayhem or racist violence." from the home page.
 Among the many interesting Web sites covering the topic of ethical issues
brought about by the third era of IT.
 CNN The Internet: Will it last or fade into the past?
Jan. 14, 1996: "A recent survey found about 9.5 million people in the
United States logging an average of six- and-a-half hours a week on-line. The
figure is far lower than a study last summer that counted more than 24 million
Internet users." For more details see the CommerceNet/Nielsen Internet
Demographics Survey, based on Internet users in US and Canada. The Executive
Summary is being distributed for free via the Internet on CommerceNet's
and Nielsen Media Research's WWW
servers. The Final Report is available for purchase from CommerceNet (phone:
415-617-8790; e-mail: email@example.com) and Nielsen Media Research (phone:
813-738-3125; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org).
 Propaganda on the Internet?
This is a transcript of the FFÈs (Feminists For Free Expression) Censorship
in Cyberspace forum.
 See for example http://nethelp.tamu.edu/~swood/GoodTimes-HoaxFAQ.html;
http://www.tcp.co.uk/tcp/good-times/, or http://www.informatik.unitrier.de/~bern/GoodTimes-Hoax/. On the risk of enhancing disinformation by
repetitive false alarms (desensitization, like in the famous fable about
"crying wolf" ) see "Rapid dissemination of half-truths, lies, and
disinformation" published in The Risks Digest 11.41 Monday 8 April 1991 by
J. E. Oberg (email://email@example.com), available.
 This disclaimer comes from the philosophical list
 For a collection of links on the problem of disinformation via the Internet
and the quality of Web information see Robert Stepno's and Paul Jones'
(email://firstname.lastname@example.org) Disinformation Pages
 For an entertaining selection of involuntary authoritative examples of
disinformation, see Great Quotes from Great Skeptics. All quotations come from The Experts Speak: The Definitive Compendium of Authoritative
Misinformation. Here is one from a prestigious colleague: [W]hen the Paris
Exhibition closes electric light will close with it and no more be heard of.
Erasmus Wilson (1878) Professor at Oxford University.
 Federal Trade Commission Home Page, see the article on "Rule Banning Deceptive, Abusive Telemarketing" and "Online Scams: Road
Hazards on the Information Superhighway" from which the following quote is taken: "Cyberspace has become the new frontier for scam artists. The scams aren't new, just the medium. Fraudulent sellers use computer services to promote familiar schemes such as bogus stock offerings, high-tech investment
opportunities, and credit-repair services. Treat all ads or would-be ads with
skepticism and never make an investment or health-related purchase decision
based solely on information obtained from a single source in any medium--
print, broadcast, or online."
 I do not say "unification" because I believe no complete digita
* Luciano Floridi è is aResearch Fellow in Philosophy at Wolfson College, University of Oxford. He has published articles on the transmission of texts, the history of scepticism, epistemology and philosophy of technology. He is author of The Extension of the Mind - An Introduction to Information and Communication Technology for Philosophers (Rome: Armando, 1996) and editor of the Iter Italicum on CD-ROM (Brill: Leiden, 1995). Since 1995 he is Vice-president of INTERACTA - the Italian Association for Interactive Communication.
Note from author:
This article is a revised version of an invited paper I gave to
the first international conference, promoted by the UNESCO Philosophy Forum, (Paris, 14-17 March, 1995). Several electronic versions were made available through the Internet in the past and can now be located via the usual WWW search engines. I wish to acknowledge the suggestions and comments sent to me via e-mail by hundreds people who helped me to improve it.