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Would the “Mensch” in the Room Please Stand Up!

In Yiddish, a Mensch, (mentsh), roughly means “a good person”.

Wolfgang Kleinwaechter, in his Internet Governance Outlook 2024, reminded us that 2024, as the years before and future years, will be pivotal for Internet Governance processes. We eagerly await Wolfgang’s missives every January, and we trust what we read because we know him, and we trust CircleID. We should be grateful and cherish this example of straightforward, digitally enabled, and trust-based human communication, as the greatest tools that enable human communication are increasingly becoming the source of fake news in the service of manipulating our minds and actions. When we read our emails, articles, and social media, participate in working groups, meetings, and conferences, when we simply try to do our job as a decent, informed human being, we have to ask ourselves, “Do we know who or what we are talking to?”

Observing for more than two decades the ICANN Public Fora, I had the privilege to encounter wonderful people, the “Menschen” of ICANN, which stand in line before the microphone and eventually begin their intervention with “My name is ...I speak in a private capacity…” Every time, I would think “Bingo” and, with a smile, tick the box on my ICANN Forum Bingo card. The particular intervention or question might vary, but in the end, they were all reminding us of where we as a community and our “leaders” got it right or had gone wrong. Not only did the responses from the podium become increasingly legalistic and dismissive, but the Mensch also have become increasingly replaced by human robots with the common goal to defend and demand their cause with unjustifiable exceptions from responsibility and common good consideration. This might be deplorable, but with some common sense and a simple search, bidders behind human robots can be quickly exposed and dealt with accordingly.

Last year, we observed a new level and quality of interference with internet governance-making processes and organizations through fake news in all its forms and manifestations. The interference no longer mainly occurs on an ideological level where social and political systems clash. This time, it is very personal, case-specific, pragmatic, and practical, with very specific targeted outcomes. It has become easy to identify those who are involved with specific decisions and how they communicate with one another and with the world in general. Issues, decisions, representatives, or candidates are no longer attacked directly. Instead, fake news is used to play the piano of human weaknesses. If a key decision is due, it is often enough just to spread the rumor that the decision has already been taken. Those with a stake in a decision feel disappointed and wronged. Those conducting the process not only have to ask themselves who leaked what and if they themselves had been diligent enough not to become liable. Worst for them, they are also the first ones suspected of being the source of the breach. It required only the threat of legal action to destroy the fundamental trust required for a free and open decision-making process. Those remaining in the shadows place their fake news to prevent decisions not to their liking. Before we feel obliged to react to the news, fake or otherwise, we need to consider the possibility that we are deliberately manipulated into it. We need to think and check our sources more than ever before we react.

We are at war. We need to defend ourselves. We need to use all the technical innovation and tools we have available to create a technological deterrent against widespread and specific manipulation.

We are the first and last line of defense. Next time we participate in a working group or attend an ICANN, IGF, WSIS, or Netmundial meeting, and we hear our conscience asking: “Would the ‘Mensch ‘in the room please stand up!” we should ask ourselves what is right to do and line up to the microphone. If we follow our fundamental values, such as dignity and equality, we will know what to do. Not doing the right thing will hurt us more than giving in to short-term advantages that are unsustainable and destructive in the long term.

Most of all, whenever we receive or send information, we have to ask ourselves if it complies with our fundamental values. Every bit of communication, like any rumor that cannot be fully attributed, should be disposed of in our mind’s Spam folder.

By Klaus Stoll, Digital Citizen

Klaus has over 30 years’ practical experience in Internet governance and implementing ICTs for development and capacity building globally. He is a regular organizer and speaker at events, advisor to private, governmental and civil society organizations, lecturer, blogger and author of publications centering empowered digital citizenship, digital dignity and integrity.

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