The Founder of the Bibliotheca Alexandria and Emeritus Librarian Dr. Ismail Serageldin

We need to think outside the box – with this statement the Founder of the Bibliotheca Alexandria and Emeritus Librarian Dr. Ismail Serageldin began his lecture “Opposing fake news and alternative facts: current challenges in the 21st century. Public awareness of media literacy” on September 28 at the Small Hall of the University of Latvia (UL).

The Presidential Lecture Series “Readings by World Leaders” commenced in 2007 and continued until 2011, following the encouragement of Valdis Zatlers.

The reinstated Lecture Series were opened by the Rector of the University of Latvia, Prof. Indriķis Muižnieks. He recollected that in the past this initiative presented an opportunity for the Latvian society to meet the world leaders of politics, culture, and science, and expressed a hope that this tradition would successfully continue. The Rector also accentuated the University’s and Government’s close bond with the current events in the world, giving the floor to the President of Latvia Raimonds Vējonis.

Lectures for those who are willing to learn from the best

In the introduction of his speech, the President of Latvia encouraged everyone to be inquisitive, emphasizing that the main goal of science is to create personalities. “Those knowing how to critically assess their knowledge, are free, and because of that even more responsible, ready to defend their opinion and evaluate their decisions,” – R. Vējonis describes the personalities that shape the foundations of the democratic, free and modern society.

At the conclusion of his speech, the President of Latvia encouraged everyone to follow the Lecture Series, – journalists, politicians, teachers and those who are willing to learn from the best received the invitations to the event. The Rector of the UL invited Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga, the former president of Latvia during 1999–2007, to give her speech in opening of the lecture; she also introduced the first guest of the reinstated lecture series – Dr. Ismail Serageldin.

Mrs. Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga has known Dr. Ismail Serageldin for several years, therefore her notion that the guest of honour is a real renaissance man in this age of information was particularly suitable.

The ex-president invited the audience to focus on Mr. Serageldin’s selfless work against poverty and his mission to provide the world with food and clear water – this persuasive request was supported by the cooperation with the World Bank, where he worked as an expert and left after eight years in the position of vice president. The next step in Mr. Serageldin’s career highlighted by V. Vīķe-Freiberga was his great undertaking to rebuild the historical Library of Alexandria, which was burnt down by religious fanatics. In her speech, V. Vīķe-Freiberga called this library an example for all of the world’s libraries and expressed her satisfaction regarding the cooperation agreement between the National Library of Latvia and Bibliotheca Alexandrina.

Lastly, she introduced the UL Honorary Doctorate recipient Ismail Serageldin.

Thinking outside the box in advancing world

“How are we going to cope with the rapid rise of fake news, outright lies, smear campaigns, cyberbullying that is facilitated by the Internet and new social media platforms?” This rhetoric question was asked by Dr. Ismail Serageldin at the beginning of the lecture, immediately voicing his opinion on this matter. “The new technologies are wonderful. And they enable all sorts of wonderful new services to humanity. But they also enable the spread of  these negative phenomena.”

At the beginning of the lecture, he warned everyone of the great and dramatic advances in the world of technologies anticipated in the next few years, and encouraged to start thinking outside the box. “We must think outside of the box, and design new institutions, regulations and procedures, that will enable us to protect the values that we hold dear, from being subverted by the misuse of the opportunities created by the new technologies” revealed Dr. I. Serageldin.

Dr. Ismail Serageldin also concluded that the age of big data and social connectivity had arrived, quickly adding that the changes experienced at present were nothing compared to those coming. “The scale of the coming Artificial Intelligence (…) revolution promises change at such a magnitude and at such a speed that the International Firm of McInsey [„The Global Institute of McInsey”] has estimated that it would have 3 000 times the destructive effect of the Industrial Revolution,” emphasized Dr. I. Serageldin.

Fake news

Guest lecturer underlined that the fake news has had a long history; however, nowadays the speed of such news spreading to public through the social media is striking. This kind of news format has become more preferred, leaving the traditional media as a secondary source. “[And] a multiplicity of channels in conventional media, and the creation of special distribution groups in the social media has promoted a polarisation of the public and allows persons to join other like-minded people in what becomes echo-chambers, in which they reinforce their prejudices rather than get informed of alternative news that exist out there somewhere,” concluded I. Serageldin, adding that in this type of information chambers a curious teenager can be turned into a future terrorist. “Those who control the propaganda machine - the political echo-chamber - acquire and deploy their tyrannical power.”

Government system in danger

“Interfering with freedom of speech has never been a good policy,” says Dr. Ismail Serageldin. In his opinion, the countries, that have tried to do so, have found out very quickly the moral strain it puts on society. “Look at the United States, the Patriot Act passed by Congress right after the terrorism of 9/11 which was intended to give the government the tools it needed to launch a war on terror. Well, it soon begat Guantanamo the rendition, enhanced interrogation techniques, outright torture, and even extrajudicial killing. All this is in one of the most solid democracies in the world.”

Dr. I. Serageldin also addressed the hate speech. Guest lecturer said that there was no such thing as alternative facts, but this statemend had been opposed with arguments that the truth was neither discernible, nor absolute. “It is propagated that the alternative facts are as equally acceptable as any other news, because that is how freedom of speech works, even when these views are contradicted by ascertainable facts.” Dr. Serageldin also said that unlawful doings should be prosecuted, but ideas must be fought with ideas. “Truth will dispel falsehood, and ultimately we should be  inculcating and teaching the younger generation to value critical thinking and to recognise the value of civility in public discourse.”

I. Serageldin also emphasized that democracy is faltering – democratic systems may differ, but an informed citizenry defines the country’s politics, electing representatives of the nation’s opinion. “That process requires access to correct information, and thus free speach has been protected in all democracies and in the media. (…) Regretfully, today fake news, which is simply lies, has polluted available information and thus threatens our very understanding of how a democratic political process should work,” said the guest lecturer. He offered two radical proposals – the majority rule principle and sortition. This kind of system would provide voters with a larger selection of options and greater legitimacy for the winning candidate.

“Now I do recognise that no system is perfect and every possible proposal is subject to critique,” says the Founder of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, “but I believe that the magnitude and the depth changes that human society is going through require that we be bold in our initiative, think outside of the conventional box and use the techniques that new technologies make possible.” That needs to be supplemented by media literacy – ability to evaluate content provided by media in a variety of its forms.

That is why we need to educate a 21st century student, who is exposed to fake news more frequently. Thinking critically, sorting information and choosing trustworthy sources needs to be taught. The education thus has an essential role in this challenge.

At the end of the lecture, Dr. Ismail Serageldin encouraged everyone to use the benefits brought by technologies, to have the courage to think outside the traditional box, to cultivate the principles that democracy is based on, and to think of the young ones, as much as possible including them in the civilized discourse.

The Lecture Series “Readings by World Leaders” will take place three to four times per year. The next lecture is scheduled in November this year.

The Lecture Series are supported by the Nordea Bank. The donation is administered by the University of Latvia Foundation.