Mark Zuckerberg, the fabulously wealthy guy behind Facebook, is now a resident of Kauai.
So I wonder if our new neighbor happened to read the Washington Post piece by Anne Applebaum – the one that suggested Zuckerberg, who recently announced his desire to give away $45 billion, should “use it to undo the terrible damage done by Facebook and other forms of social media to democratic debate and civilized discussion all over the world.”
And if he did read it, did he reflect at all on the damage that anti-GMO activists have wreaked, primarily through Facebook, on the practice of agriculture in his little paradise in the Pacific?
I mean, is he even slightly aware of how Facebook was — and still is — used to tear apart the island where he bought a couple hundred acres so he can safely retreat from the ugly world that his invention helped to spawn and continues to perpetuate?
Does he even have a clue how activist groups used their Facebook pages to foster fear, spread outrageous lies, harm small businesses, attack and malign lifelong residents of the Islands? Does he feel any sense of responsibility for the very dark side of his creation? Not just in Hawaii, but around the world?
Is his conscience ever pricked? And if it is, is it then assuaged by doling out cash?
As Applebaum writes:
If different versions of the truth appear in different online versions; if no one can agree upon what actually happened yesterday; if fake, manipulated or mendacious news websites are backed up by mobs of Internet trolls; then conspiracy theories, whether of the far left or far right, will soon have the same weight as reality. Politicians who lie will be backed by a claque of supporters.
Rich democracies haven’t realized that this is also fast becoming their problem. Whenever I’ve described the disappearance of facts and the growth of Internet fantasy while in London or Washington, the response has usually been rather smug: How very terrible for all of those people in Tunisia or Slovakia, but “it couldn’t happen here.” But it can and it has: Donald Trump claimed that “thousands” of Muslims in New Jersey cheered the collapse of the World Trade Center, and thousands of real commenters and bloggers rushed to his defense on Facebook and elsewhere. Never mind that it didn’t happen: It is now possible to live in a virtual reality where Trump’s lies are acclaimed as the hidden truth that the mainstream media have concealed from the masses.
Many of those who do the inventing have particular political goals.
But the longer-term impact of disinformation is even more profound: It creates cynicism and apathy. Eventually it means that nobody believes anything. People aren’t bothered by Trump’s lies — or Vladimir Putin’s lies, or the Islamic State’s lies — because they don’t believe anything they read anyway. There’s so much garbage information out there, it’s impossible to know what is true
Nobody yet knows what to do about this sea change, because few people have even accepted that it is happening or understand how it works. There’s a wide-open space for Zuckerberg to help journalists, academics, activists and politicians figure out how to bring reality back into public debate.
Honolulu Star-Advertiser columnist Lee Cataluna referenced this same dynamic in her Sunday piece about visiting Monsanto's operations on Oahu:
“How do you talk in an understandable way about reality versus what they read on Facebook?” asks Shay Sunderland, Ph.D., who has been with Monsanto for 23 years.
It’s a sincere question for this era, when hysteria and untruths have drowned out thoughtful conversation on a most crucial topic: how to feed the world’s people.
I grew up in a sugar plantation family. My father, both grandfathers and three great-grandfathers all worked in sugar. I grew up hearing about growing cycles and crop yields at the dinner table. Walking along a dirt road with blue-green mountains as the backdrop and a long sweep of rectangular fields stretching toward the ocean is like stepping back in time to a Hawaii I dearly miss.
So I am inclined to like agriculture. Not just hazy Pinterest photographs of darling boutique farms, but agriculture — the science of growing crops to feed the population.
I don’t understand why there is hysterical distrust of science. It is fearmongering. It is often wildly untruthful. It is unproductive. I can’t imagine Hawaii without agriculture. I’d rather see those lands in crops than in rows of look-alike houses.
So should we just stand down and trust everything Monsanto (and Syngenta and Dow and Pioneer, etc.) says? Of course not. We should be watchful and open-minded, willing to consider new, science-based data that may challenge our understanding about what’s safe and what isn’t. If you see something, say something. But that’s very different from forwarding a scary meme you saw on Facebook and trusting it as irrefutable truth.
I came home after my visit to Monsanto in the same shape as when I left, no obvious lingering effects from being so close to dust, pesticides and genetically manipulated plants. But I was no closer to understanding how we have allowed agriculture to become demonized in a place where so many of our families have such a strong connection to farming the land.
My own writings on this topic have been driven not by a love for Monsanto, or any multinational chemical company, or even support for GMOs, but a love for agriculture in Hawaii, and most especially, a love for the truth. And part of that truth-telling includes continuing to spotlight this issue, even though it makes some people — perhaps those who are ashamed of their behavior? — uncomfortable.
We aren't going to heal and progress as a community, a nation, a planet, unless we start valuing truth and ostracizing those who intentionally distort it.