Should ‘information’ be thought of as a poison?

A couple of weeks ago, BBC News unveiled BBC Verify, a new brand to counter disinformation and reinforce audience trust by showing how its journalists check the veracity of what’s reported. Inevitably, Verify has been frequently featured in the broadcaster’s radio and television news programmes since the announcement. Surveys (like the one here, for example) show there’s been a significant drop in trust in the UK news media over the last five years. With BBC News having suffered one of the biggest drops, it’ll be interesting to see if Verify helps to stem their downward trend.

The advent of BBC Verify, plus recent social media and online clamour surrounding a number of human tragedies, triggered childhood memories of the Badger’s father reading his newspaper at the breakfast table. He would regularly say ‘Don’t believe everything you read in newspapers, lad. Most of the information is just poison’. In today’s world we access and consume news and information in a very different way, primarily via our televisions and internet enabled laptops, tablets, and smartphones on a 24 by 7 basis. This fatherly advice, however, seems even more relevant than ever today. These days, being sceptical about the content  you consume and wondering if it contains something poisonous likely to harm you, is definitely no bad thing.

In biochemistry, a poison is a natural or synthetic substance that causes damage to living tissue and has a harmful or fatal effect on our body. The act of poisoning involves a cause (the poison), a subject (the entity being poisoned), an effect (symptoms), and a consequence (debilitation or death). Awareness that things like insect and snake bites, drugs, dodgy food, pesticides, radiation, and biological/chemical agents can poison us is good, but our awareness that ‘information’ can poison our minds and change behaviour is still too low, especially in youngsters whose lives are dominated by social media and the virtual world. It’s no surprise that evidence for harm to young people’s mental health through their use of social media continues to grow.

The Badger’s found himself wondering if there’s merit in thinking of ‘information’ as a poison giving the synergy with the act of poisoning noted above. Just like a medical drug, ‘information’ consumed in an appropriate context from a trusted source can do much good. But also like a drug, ‘information’ in high quantity glibly absorbed and accepted from anywhere can cause an individual great harm. Categorizing ‘information’ as a poison might, perhaps, simplify and embed greater understanding of its potential impact on wellbeing, especially in youngsters.

The Badger tested this musing with his teenage nephew, only to be told that age had clearly affected his mental faculties! If that’s true, then it’s down to the ‘information poison’ he’s consumed over the years and the fact that there’s no real antidote in sight…


Toddlers and online safety…

Gone are the days when toddlers just played with toy cars, trains, books, and physical building blocks, and watched children’s television before bedtime. They learn quickly from those around them, so it’s hardly surprising that they want to play with mobile phones, tablets, and laptops when their parents and grandparents are using them routinely as part of day-to-day life. The Badger’s toddler grandson, for example, already runs around with an old pocket calculator to his ear mimicking a mobile phone, adeptly swipes through the photo gallery on the Badger’s smartphone, and also selects and plays videos on the ‘Hey Duggee’ YouTube channel on a tablet.

Last weekend, as his grandson sat watching ‘Hey Duggee’ on an iPad, the Badger read OFCOM’s ‘Children and parents: media and attitudes report 2022’ .  It’s full of interesting information and hard numbers about how children between the ages of 3 and 17 use the internet and social media. It brings home the fact that the online world is central to children’s lives from a very early age. That’s both a positive thing and a negative, with the negatives falling mainly under the umbrella of the following neat words in an antipodean news article:

‘We’re living through the wild west of the internet. In Google, Facebook, Instagram, Amazon and the rest, we have a new kind of critical infrastructure, not unlike the railroads and telephone lines of the mid-1800s…….we’ve become rapidly dependent on this new critical infrastructure, which has in many ways transformed the world for the better, but we’ve done it before we figured out how to make it safe’.

Responsible parents and grandparents want their offspring to benefit from the positives of the online world from an early age, provided they can be confident in online safety. Unfortunately, confidence isn’t high.  With just under half of children in the UK aged 12 having at least one social media account in 2019, and apparently more PR than substantive improvements in the aftermath of  Molly Russell’s 2022 inquest, the Badger feels that the case for regulation is overwhelming, and that it’s the only way to improve confidence that his grandson will be safe online. 

But here’s the rub. The UK’s Online Safety Bill, here, has been plodding through Parliament since 2019 and looks unlikely to become law before 2024. In the modern world of electronic documents, email, instant messaging, and content sharing, it’s shameful that it takes years to produce legislation that was really needed at least a decade ago.  Why is it taking so long? Is it because politicians are themselves part of the new wild west by over-using the internet and social media for their own ends? Who knows, but with AI set to revolutionise every type of content accessible online, the probability that the Badger’s grandson will enjoy a tamed online wild west seems to be trending towards vanishingly small.