Commentary

Doctoring Doom

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists this morning announced it is keeping its “Doomsday Clock” at 100 seconds to midnight -- the closest it's ever been set to the end of the world as we know it -- citing what are at best mixed signals for several key existential threats to humanity, including nuclear war, climate change, and beginning last year, a global pandemic. And while it didn’t add a fourth, it probably should: media. Explicitly, the kind that can accelerate the spread of disinformation that exacerbates all other existential threats.

While the Bulletin’s President and CEO Rachel Bronson said that kind of media is factored in its board’s doomsday calculations, they are listed as a “threat multiplier,” with the fundamental threats being nuclear war, climate change and biological threats like the COVID-19 pandemic.

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But based on the Q&A that followed today’s briefing, I recommend they add media as one of the doomsday threats, because recent history has proven it can be “weaponized” just like nuclear, biological or chemical weapons for the purposes of mass destruction.

“I wonder if this is something you are considering when you look holistically at our threats as a species,” asked Molly McKew, the lead author of Great Power, a digital publication that describes itself as covering “unconventional stories about unconventional wars.”

I’ll admit, I never heard of Great Power, or McKew before, but I think she asked the most salient question of the Bulletin’s board during the Q&A, concluding by asking, how we can “determine what are the threats against us, if we can’t evaluate and see the truth in the same way anymore.”

McKew was alluding to the weaponization of digital platforms -- especially social media -- to spread disinformation for the kind of political gain that we saw over the past several years in the U.S., but she said this is not a U.S. problem alone, because other big nations such as Russia and China have been using it to disinform and amplify conspiracies across the world and that it has been contributing to “the overall erosion of fact-based scientific truth.”

It was quite a question to lob at the end of a briefing of leading scientists, academics and world leaders wrestling with the setting of a doomsday clock intended to inform humanity about the current risks it faces from some pretty obvious existential threats, and I’m surprised that media hasn’t become an equally obvious one in the minds of the Bulletin’s board?

While the weaponization of media isn’t new -- nations, including the U.S., but especially Russia have been aggressively waging hybrid warfare via disinformation campaigns since the end of World War II -- but something accelerated with the power and instantaneous ubiquity of the World Wide Web and especially social media platforms capable of reaching -- and importantly, segmenting -- billions of people who often aren’t equipped to vet the facts they are presented with.

The board’s climate change authorities on climate change, biological disease and nuclear weapons all acknowledged the role media plays in magnifying those threats, something I learned while working with climate scientists on a project organized by late University of Massachusetts professor David Lustick that examined the role of media in educating and informing the public about climate change. And I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

Ironically, it was stumbling upon The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in my college library while studying journalism in the 1980s that helped influence me to cover media, because it is an example of utilizing media to help combat -- not amplify -- existential threats. And its Doomsday Clock is just a visual media device to help people get their minds around it.

Of course, I have my one beliefs about the role of media, and thing that everything human beings do is media, and therefore, media is everything human -- both bad and good. So I hope the Bulletin’s board takes McKew’s question to heart and considers the explicit role media disinformation plays -- in and of itself -- as one of our greatest existential threats.

4 comments about "Doctoring Doom".
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  1. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, January 28, 2021 at 10:22 a.m.

    Joe, when you use the term "media" you cast a very wide net and most of those who fall into that net are not guilty of what you---and I----- are worried about. In reality, I assume that you are mainly referring to social media, certain talk radio hosts and the 24/7 cable news channels ----plus radical left or right websites. OK, but what is to be done about this? Aside from coercing the social media platforms to be more assertive---and promt--about fact checking/removing  false or misleading content and regulating cable news so "equal time" is mandated to allow those who can demonstrate that they have been unfairly attacked or misrepresented to rspond do we go to some form of censorship? That seems to be a very dangerous solution as who is it that determines what content is or is not in the public's good? Can we rely on advertisers to boycot "bad" media platforms? Certainly not.

    I suspect that the answer lies in the innate common sense of most people who will eventially get fed up with all of the BS and outright lying and character assasinations of the extremists on both sides and stop listening to them. That's what happened in TV whenever the programmers went overboard on violent, counter culture or anti-establishmen/capitalist content. Viewers simply tuned them out. Perhaps, the same thing will happen regarding the extreme  political polarization and lunacy-driven conspiracy theories that seem so scary today. I hope so.

  2. Joe Mandese from MediaPost, January 28, 2021 at 11:06 a.m.

    @ed papazian: Ed, good comments, but I was explicit about special kinds of media: "Explicitly, the kind that can accelerate the spread of disinformation that exacerbates all other existential threats."

  3. Milan Miller from idk, January 28, 2021 at 3 p.m.


    No help at all

  4. Charles Pierce from Private replied, January 30, 2021 at 10:31 a.m.

    The issue is more about communication channels, and what happens when anyone on Earth can personally share content with anyone else on Earth?


    The exponential sharing of content via social networks - either to friends (Facebook) or to mass numbers of followers (Twitter and Kim Kardashian as an example) - is ultimately a personal choice by a person and the algorithms just choose a subset of the entire population of your immediate social network.


    No one can write a law to absolutely define what is a "fact", and biased opinions exist everywhere.


    In the United States, we protect individuals rights to hate speech, lies, extreme bigotry, and outlandish claims and have let them publicly communicate them in whatever form one can do. Libel and slander laws temper extreme abuse via legal remedy.


    The real challenge for our civilization is do we allow individuals to say what they want and communicate it to anyone else, or do we want to try and control what people can communicate and who and how they can communicate it?


    Everything that people want to control - on the Left and the Right - is not illegal in the United States today. Before the "media" can be regulated, we will first need to regulate individuals and their content first....the "media" is just a way of sharing/communicating that content. And that regulation effort will run up against individual rights.


    The outcome will determine if humans truly support individual liberty or do more humans support the right for social groups to restrict individual liberty?

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