The (unfinished) digital revolution

There were two rather interesting pieces of news this week that showed how Russia is trying (rather desperately at this stage) to live out the dream supposed in George Orwell’s 1984 to control the ‘truth’

The first is their new ‘Wikipedia’, which is not Wikipedia, but looks like it, and gives answers just like it does, but when you ask it about the war in Ukraine, it says there is no war, merely a ‘Special Military Operation’. You might click on this information – like any information – and keep clicking (out of curiosity or merely fascination) and end up believing that Putin is not short man at all, but a man of average height.

Anything is possible.

The other interesting story to emerge was that Russia has spent at least €300 million spreading false information in the West, and also in trying to influence elections. It might not seem like much in the general run of things, but €300 million is a lot of money if spent correctly.

You don’t spend that kind of dirty money on ad campaigns on television – it’s spent on writers, graphic designers, content producers, computer programmers – even bribes – and in that context, it’s a lot of money. This is the country that hacked the HSE, or at least, gave cover to the people who did.

It explains a lot.

We live in a country that has the eight-highest quality of life in the world, according to the UN, but if you were to derive all your news from social media, you’d imagine we were living in some rat-infested hell-hole from which people were desperately trying to escape, like some wire-fenced concentration camp.

It’s important to note these things and understand them in the wider context of our health services, our efforts to aid Ukrainian refugees, the management of the service, and the general running of the country.

We might not be at war with Russia, but make no mistake about it, Russia is at war with us. Not specifically Ireland, but Ireland will do for now. If Russian hackers find a way into our health system again, is Putin going to say ‘No. Not little Ireland. We must not hurt our Irish friends because they are neutral’?

They already have form here. And they have form in the wider context of creating hate online, trying to influence elections, promoting far-right groups and generally undermining Western democracies.

I know we would all prefer that this wasn’t happening. The British were so shocked and traumatised by the Great War, they made WWll much worse by pretending Hitler was someone who would, in the end, be rational.

But whatever we are facing this winter, it would be better if we were prepared for it. The Ukraine War and the cost-of-living crisis will have enormous implications for life in Ireland – and no doubt there are already bots and Facebook pages lining up to take advantage of any short-comings in government administration – not to make it better, but to take it down.

Meanwhile, Instagram was fined €405 million for allowing children’s names to be published along with their profiles. This didn’t happen by accident. You don’t set a default a certain way by accident. It does make you look at Mark Zuckerman in rather a different light.

But the point of all this rambling is to demonstrate that information can be a weapon. Joe Biden said as much this week when he talked about social media giving hate too much oxygen online. It’s easy to find people online who will confirm your biases and prejudice. It’s easy to fall down the rabbit hole.

The pandemic intensified this. When you are meeting people on a regular basis, they will ridicule your latest theory – developed after ‘doing your own research’ – about how the moon landings were faked, or how Fidel Castro is alive and well and living in Dingle. But online, all these things are treated quite seriously, and you never know if the person who’s agreeing with you is a Russian bot, an idiot, or just being hoodwinked like yourself. Like our MEP Moscow Mick, you wonder if he’s being paid, or if he’s just plain stupid, and which is worse?

But while there is much complaint about how social media and the Internet is destroying things, we hear very little about the power of this technology to transform medicine, and with it, how we think of medicine, how it looks, and what it does.

An innovative new project launched just this week on Clare Island by the University of Galway will improve care for chronic diseases on the island by using video consultations and remote monitoring to provide care to people suffering from chronic diseases that would have been simply impossible in a pre-digital world.

The EU have set a target date of 2030 for every patient in the EU to have access to their own Electronic Patient Record. And HIQA have now published a report indicating the four major policy areas which must be tackled to do this – a national health engagement strategy, a new legislative framework, appropriate privacy and governance structures, and improved infrastructure to support the collection and use of this data.

This collection of data should allow for research that will improve outcomes for patients. But the administration of this data needs to be managed – on the one hand to ensure privacy, and the other to ensure that it can be used in a way that allows for better efficiencies and cost-control.

We are in the midst of a digital revolution. But like early on in the French one, we are still focussing on the daily executions, and not getting on with the work of establishing all the benefits that can come from using this technology imaginatively and productively.

Yes, there are dangers in having all this data where it can be hacked, and we do need protection from outside bad actors, but we can’t put on hold all the benefits of the digital age to healthcare because of the Russians.

We’ve got to be a bit more Ukrainian in our attitudes, in that regard.

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