The information age began in the middle of the 20th century: a shift from an emphasis on mechanical/industrial production to information technology. Claude Shannon’s information theory quantified information and made it measurable. But, because Shannon’s theory was a quantitative theory of communication, the meaning of information transmitted was a secondary issue. In his landmark 1948 paper, he stated that “…semantic aspects of communication are irrelevant to the engineering problem. The significant aspect is that the actual message is one selected from a set of possible messages.” Basically, Shannon solved an engineering problem and created the information age. Every email sent, online social media account created, or song downloaded, all owe debt to Shannon: an intellectual giant of the 20th century. But, by relegating the issue of ‘meaning’ to the background, Shannon’s theory elevated information quantity over quality.
The information age has prioritised efficiency over meaning. Twenty-first century online public communications platforms (social media) were created with the transmission of information as the paramount capability. Information quality was secondary. Misinformation is now a major problem. About 25 years before Shannon’s landmark information theory paper, the Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote a 75-page tract. Wittgenstein’s book, titled Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (translated as Logical Philosophical Treatise), is about the role facts play in the real world. Wittgenstein declared that facts make up the real world, facts divide the world (draws the boundaries), logic fills the world and limits it such that some issues are better left unsaid as they cannot be analysed properly. We need Wittgenstein’s work today for inspiration and guidance in our current misinformation era. Wittgenstein’s philosophy focused on the clarification of thoughts: “A philosophical work consists essentially of elucidations. Philosophy should make clear and delimit sharply the thoughts which otherwise are, as it were, opaque and blurred”.
‘Meaning’ must take centre stage in the information age if we are to combat misinformation online successfully: a focus on facts, logic and clarity. What can be publicly communicated can be communicated clearly and with integrity. Some issues are better left unstated (Wittgenstein referred to these phenomena as ‘mystical’). Misinformation can occur when we attempt to state the unsayable: an example of this is a conspiracy theory that cannot really be proved or disproved. Systems/devices/algorithms able to filter out untruth, elevate facts and relegate the unsayable to the background will help prevent misinformation propagation.