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Knowledge is the key to deal with Social Media

Minister for Higher Education and Science Søren Pind's speech the conference "Mind and Democracy in the Age of Social Media” hosted by Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters 16 April 2018.

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Mogens Høgh Jensen
Dear key note speakers
Ladies and gentlemen

Let me begin by telling you about a scientific experiment made by Harvard-professor B. F. Skinner back in the 1930’s.

Skinner placed a hungry rat in a small, advanced box. When the rat pressed a button, it was instantly rewarded with food.

Quickly, the rat taught itself to press the button whenever it was hungry.

Then Skinner adjusted the experiment a bit.

He began to trig the reward randomly, so the rat no longer got food every time it pressed the button.

The rat changed behavior. Now it didn’t only press the button when it was hungry. It pressed the button constantly. The rat was no longer driven by hunger but of expectation and hope to find the next delicious treat.

We are Social Media addicts

I have a confession to make. I am a communication addict. My name is Søren. And I sometimes identify myself with that poor rat in the box. Being lured with the expectation of exciting news, a ‘like’ or a comment from my acquaintances on social media. 

And I believe I am not alone. 76 percent of all Danes are present daily on Facebook, Twitter or a third platform.  Social media have become an integrated part of the way we interact with each other.

And true, social media give us a unique connectedness. Give us easy access to an infinite world of knowledge. And a platform to express ourselves and our opinions.

But social media also create systems that make us dependent on communication rewards.

Most of us lack the understanding of the algorithms behind these systems. Take myself as an example. I can serve an iPhone, an iPad. But I don’t have a broader understanding of the algorithms behind. How they affect my behaviour. What they actually do to my brain. This means that the power lies entirely with the small group of people who build the algorithms. They can push the buttons, they can ring their bells, and we can all become hungry rats.

We need more knowledge in the field. More research. So we can become aware of the consequences of being online 24/7. And aware of the impact of social media and algorithms on the decisions we make.

In my view, the understanding of algorithms, big data and other key elements of computer science is relevant to every university-student education. It is central to our ability to navigate in the world today and could be a part of the new philosophicum, I intend to introduce at university level.

We need citizens who are critical in their approach to social media. And aware of the personal data they leave on the internet.

Recently Cambridge Analytica somehow got access to personal data from more than 80 million Facebook users. The information was used to influence American voters with reference to the presidential election in 2016.

Even Mark Zuckerberg admits it now - and he takes the blame.

It becomes more and more apparent that we need regulation in order to prevent unauthorized people from stealing and misusing personal data. 

Hopefully, the latest Facebook-scandal can be a wake-up call. Until then; “Hey, be careful out there,” like sergeant Esterhaus said in Hill Street Blues.

Hate speech on a daily basis

Our dependence on social media is one thing. Another is the tone of debate we see taking place online. 

The way people communicate sometimes leaves me speechless.  

Only last week I was asked to cut my wrists from an anonymous user on Twitter, who disagreed with my opinions. Two weeks ago I received a subtle death threat from another user on Twitter.

I am no saint. God knows that. I love to post a provocative statement myself. But these are not just provocative statements. These are harmful posts made by harmful people that are potentially dangerous to our society and democracy.   

The truth is that while we have been enjoying all the benefits of social media we have given trolls and dark men a free hand on the same platforms. 

Take Anders Breivik, the man behind the attacks in Utøya, Norway.

He used Twitter to send out his views of the world long before he carried out his attacks. Having all the time and place in the world to create support for his twisted views.

Social media have the potential to lift the democratic debate. Everyone can seek knowledge. Everyone can attend. Everyone has a voice – even people in oppressed regimes. 

But at the same time social media open the gates to all sorts of manipulation. To all sorts of fake news and disrespectful comments. Threatening to undermine our mutual exchange of views. Our respect for truth and facts. Our openness to different minded people – a value that for generations has characterized us as a healthy democracy.

In 2016 Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft and YouTube signed a European Union code of conduct agreeing to review all reports of hate speech. After 24 hours they had removed 70 percent of the reported posts. This is one way of solving the problem. But what about fake news?

Social media institutions certainly need to address that problem. But no less important; we as individuals need a strong foundation of knowledge ourselves to tell right from wrong, to see true from false.

Let knowledge guide us

I don’t have all the answers to this. I am only a politician.

Education is one important mean. But I believe it is just as important to do more research in the area.

That’s why we are here today. To become wiser on the effects that social media have on us. To let knowledge guide us. To educate ourselves to be more critical users of social media.  

Our combination of being an open and at the same time highly digitised society has made us vulnerable. But we are not like the ignorant rats in Professor Skinners foodbox. We are critical humans with our eyes open and the ability to become wiser.

All in all the internet is a good thing. It makes us able to communicate across the globe in just a second. 

So let's celebrate the good things about the internet. While at the same time fight back on its dark sides with the best weapons we have:

Knowledge. Research. Common sense.

And let’s begin today by taking stock of the current knowledge in the field.

I would like to thank the key note speakers for showing up on such a short notice. 

And thank the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters for hosting the conference.

I wish you all an enlightening conference.

last modified Apr 16, 2018