Thoughts on the Current Information Landscape

I think the information landscape has been going through massive changes–changes that I sense vaguely, but don’t really fully understand. I plan to use this space to think out loud, as a way to gain a better understanding.

Older info landscape:

  • Less info overload;
  • Institutions relatively strong and viewed as authoritative by large numbers of people with varying political views;
  • Standards and effective consequences for not adhering to standards, at least for those who biggest platforms (e.g. newspapers, magazines, TV, etc.);
  • In discourse between average citizens, social sanctioning for violating standards and norms effective and efficient.

Within this information environment, being good critical thinkers, getting info from a variety of news sources would be a reasonable and practical approach for individuals. Within this information environment, providing facts and letting individuals make their own decisions would be a reasonable approach by the press and other institutions. That is, the press need not do as much analysis and processing of the information; they can put the burden on individuals to do this.

New info landscape

  • info glut;
  • Weak or inadequate institutions and tools for individuals to sort and analyze the information.
  • Information sources either don’t have, accept, and/or enforce standards for news and information that is critical for citizens in a democracy. Yet, the authority of these sources of information can be equal to more established news outlets, at least for some people;
  • In online political discourse, individual participants as well as host sites have great difficulty administering consequences to individuals and groups that break important ground rules for civil, thoughtful discourse.

In new info environment, individuals are overwhelmed. Institutions like the press are weakened, in terms of resources and authority. The older approach used by the press and other institutions don’t work in new info environment. Tools and processes have slightly different objectives and have to function differently. We may need completely new institutions and novel means to address the problem. (Problem: See Neil Postman.)

Dependence on the Elite

I’ve been thinking a lot about the knowledge an individual has of current events and politics. My sense is that we can group an individual’s understanding into two categories:

1. Understanding based on direct knowledge by the individual or through scrutiny, analysis, and vetting by the individual;
2. Understanding based on trusted sources. Here, the individual doesn’t really have a good understanding, but relies on trusted sources, like New York Times, political party leaders, or well-respected academics, etc. Additionally, this type of understanding is often based on various cues and short-cuts. For example, if the major newspapers all have similar headlines for a relatively long period of time, an individual would conclude that information in the headlines is a) true, and b) important. The information one receives in this way is superficial, and sometimes unreliable; and one probably shouldn’t have a lot of confidence in this type of understanding.

In my view, the political understanding of every individual is a combination of both types. Those who are the most knowledgeable and wise depend less on #2, but even their understanding is based on this second type, at least to some degree, in some areas. For those who aren’t well-informed about politics and don’t follow the news closely–a very large group of people–I think they rely heavily on the second approach. This is the group I really worry about, and here are few reasons why:

1. We’re losing sources of information that are trusted by large numbers of both the left and right. The result is confusion for those who don’t follow the news closely. If we don’t have very many sources of information that the left and right both trust, and the sources of information are highly partisan–i.e., the left says they’ve got the truth and the right are lying–and vice-versa–then this will confuse these people who aren’t well-informed and don’t follow the news closely. They won’t know who to believe and what’s true.

2. Trump, some prominent Republicans, and conservative pundits are pushing the idea that the mainstream press is “fake news”–that they’re dishonest and make things up. Trump seems to be moving to the point where he wants people to believe that he speaks the truth, while the press lies. Roughly a third of the nation will believe him, the other third will not, while the remaining third may be confused. That’s a dangerous situation in my view.

Next: Thoughts on Solving this Problem.

Interview

9 thoughts on “Thoughts on the Current Information Landscape

  1. This is the Moment All of Trumps’s Anti-Media Rhetoric Has Been Working Towards is a WaPo op-ed by Margaret Sullivan. Essentially, Sullivan and others have been arguing that Trump has been attacking the media–and the truth–undermining both so that when the press reveals information that poses an existential threat to the Trump presidency many Americans will either be confused or won’t believe it. The accusation is audacious and if it were made to a politician several years ago, I would have scoffed. But I’m not scoffing now. I do think this is an actual possibility.

    Why is this happening? Besides Trump’s brazen authoritarian behavior*, I think the failure on the part of the individuals, institutions, and any other mechanism/process that would communicate Trump’s attempts, its significance, and danger is a big reason for this. Part of a successful process involves a) effectively sifting through the information glut, and b) having the authority that all sides recognize.

    What’s overvalued in this scenario is the critical thinking of individuals. For one thing, there are large groups of people who don’t possess this, and/or don’t have the time, energy, or motivation to do sort through the information. These vast majority of people need help, or else they just won’t get this information. And the great critical thinkers who also happen to be super knowledgeable also need help as well.

    By the way, Republican leaders and prominent conservative pundits could also serve at helpers. If they joined Democrats and liberal pundits to renounce Trump’s actions, this would serve as the type of filter I’m talking about.

    Edit

    * I actually think having authoritarian actors like Trump and perhaps even more sophisticated ones like Russia and others that will emulate them, is a big deal. They pollute and manipulate the information space, and the entities that manage and keep this space functional for a democracy (like the press) don’t know how to respond.

    One related problem: Trump and Putin brazenly lie and make up stuff, and there’s no consequence; there doesn’t seem to be a mechanism to administer consequences. If Republicans and Democrats united and vociferously pushed back against this–or if Americans united and pushed back hard against this–that would be a way. But partisanship and maybe corruption (possibly linked to a country like Russia) prevent Republican leaders from doing this. As for the people pushing back, a third of the public is probably confused or unaware of what’s going on and another third support the authoritarians. Additionally, when a significant part of the public square occurs online, providing consequences to those who lie brazenly can be difficult as well.

  2. Even smart people have trouble knowing what’s true and real:

    Sipher is a former CIA. This is not to mock Sipher. I didn’t know the shot of Trudeau was from 2017–I thought it was from today. Sipher isn’t the only one who made this mistake as well.

    (Note: I don’t even know if the correction is actually correct.)

    1. The issue above gave me an idea, which isn’t original. The idea is to create a twitter handle that goes around fact-checking the most tweeted claims, particularly with regard to political discourse. Think of it as a snopes on social media. They would have to act fast and also be seen as a trustworthy evaluator from both the left and right.

      I would love if they had a website where you could check claims (like the one above).

      I sort of see this entity as a kind of custodian of the public square that is based online, particularly social media. Think of those tow trucks that are on the freeway during peak traffic hours, ready to remove stalled vehicles to keep traffic following.

  3. Thread on why we should be wary when telecommunications companies purchase and control media outlets.

  4. In the original post, I had a section called, “Dependence on the Elites,” and I recently read an interview transcript between Chris Hayes and David Roberts that touched on a similar idea, and I want to quote and comment on parts of the interview. “Assessing America’s information crisis” was the subject of the interview. In my original post, I mention two ways people gain knowledge and understanding about politics–one that involves scrutiny and evaluation by the individual and the other involving trusting other people, institutions, or processes. Hayes and Roberts characterize the second approach as a social process, going so far as saying “trust relationships are the building blocks of how we form knowledge about the world.” When it comes to political matters, I especially think this is true. I like the way they talk about this in the following passage:

    In Western culture, particularly American culture, we sort of adopted from science, our view of what epistemology is, i.e. you gather evidence, and you sift through it, and you reason from evidence to conclusions. But as you say, from your anecdote about the world being round, the vast, vast, vast bulk of what we say we know, we know based on trust, we know based on someone told us, and we believe them. So really, when it about knowledge and how to know things, it’s much less about the sort of individual process of inquiry or gathering evidence or sifting through it, and much more about, who do we trust, and how do we maintain that trust, and how is that trust vouchsafed, and what happens when that trust crumbles?

    (emphasis added)
    They don’t really touch on this, but I want to reiterate and make a few points about the people and institutions people choose to trust:
    1. Large segments of the population, which should include people on left, right, and center, should trust these entities. If the left decides certain sources are trustworthy, but the right believes the opposite, I our democracy would be risk;
    2. Trust of these entities should be rooted in Enlightenment principles. Facts, empiricism, and reason fundamentally guide their work, and the trust of individuals and groups should be based on the degree to which these entities utilize these principles.
    In my opinion, building and/or strengthening entities like this is one of the biggest challenges we face as a society. If we succeed, I think we can strengthen and preserve our democracy as well as protect from nefarious actors who engage in information warfare.
    There are many challenges to accomplish this, but the conceptual misunderstanding about knowledge and understanding is a really important one to grasp. If we keep thinking that the vast majority of our political knowledge depends primarily on the critical thinking and effort of the individual, then that will likely lead to the wrong solutions.

    Now, I want to be absolutely clear here: I think critical thinking is very important, and we should definitely encourage it. But thinking is the key to solving the information glut problem is a big mistake in my view.
    The Knowledge of Very Smart People Also Depend Heavily on Trusting Sources of information
    Hayes and Roberts also discuss an attitudinal obstacles that I want to address:

    HAYES:…Knowledge is a product of trust, and social relationships. That’s how we know things about the world, and that’s one thing I want to make clear here. That’s true for everyone, there’s things we’re going to talk about in this conversation that are about a certain segment of the American population, but it’s also important to realize, you high minded, enlightened, liberal listener, right now, this is true of you.
    ROBERTS: Yes. And the fact that it’s taken on a weird negative connotation, such that you have to use those sort of caveats, is sort of like evidence of what we’re talking about. Like there’s no reason that should be viewed as a bad thing that you accept most knowledge on trust, it’s just absolutely intrinsic to the human project, but it’s sort of taken on this sort of connotation is like, groupthink, or you’re passive, or you’re just sort of accepting what your told. You know?

    (emphasis added)
    I think Roberts is really on to something. My sense is that well-educated individuals, especially those interested in politics, want to believe that their knowledge is based on their intellectual capacity, critical thinking, and effort. And that is understandable, but it also seems like a big obstacle to addressing the problem.
    Wanting the press to simply present the facts, allowing individuals to make up their own minds, is another expression of this. They do not want the journalist’s opinions, as that seems to indicate they are too feeble to think for themselves. On some level, I find this thinking strange. Journalists including their opinion doesn’t prevent a smart person from critically examining the news. In any event

    1. In any event…?

      I think you and he are both skimming over part of the process: trust is not simply something to be given. Trust itself is based partially on intellectual capacity, critical thinking, and effort. I don’t examine everything Chuck Todd says for its objectivity and soundness before I agree (or disagree). I trust Chuck Todd (a man without a college degree, it’s worth pointing out) because over the years, I’ve found his reporting to be responsible and his reasoning sound. In interviews where he is the subject (and not the interviewer), I’ve found him to be thoughtful, introspective, vulnerable, and witty, qualities that make me more likely to trust a person.

      And if my more conservative friends don’t trust Chuck Todd, that’s okay too. I hope the people they trust are as clear about facts and analysis as I think Chuck Todd is.

      Your last paragraph is sound, but I think you misunderstand my position. I want the press simply to present the facts in a news story. In an opinion piece, anything goes if you ask me. And in an “analysis” piece, as long as it’s clearly meant to be analysis and not news, I’m okay with that too. As I mentioned to you a year or so ago, I try to read the news, and I try to limit my reading of opinion and analysis to a couple of pieces a day. It’s dangerous when a piece that’s meant to report the facts also throws in analysis or opinion; it leads to confusion about objectivity and facts.

      You and I have disagreed about this for going on twenty years. When reporters (that is, newswriters) let certain words slip into news articles — words like “surprisingly” — they’re letting their bias seep into the facts, and the facts should be without bias. In an analysis piece? Sure. Say a certain fact is surprising, but then say why. In an opinion piece? I don’t even care. Say it’s surprising all you want because it’s an opinion piece and I’ll decide whether or not I agree with the opinionator that it’s surprising.

      A few years ago, a local news broadcast, just before going to commercial, said something like, “Tomorrow, this station will air mayor Mufi Hanneman’s final State of the City address. So-and-so will join us when we return to share what we can look forward to.”

      The mayor was still only midway through his second term. He had not announced that he would run for governor. The station (whoever wrote the teaser or the broadcaster herself) was inserting an opinion without facts: the mayor would not still be mayor within a year. I immediately sent the station a message on twitter: “Why did she say it’s the mayor’s last state of the city address? Does (station name) know something we don’t?” The station replied, “No, the newscaster misspoke.”

      Yet there was no on-air correction. I was furious. Do you see why? Stirring up rumors about which incumbent is running or not running is opinion. It can even be analysis. But slyly (or carelessly, depending on who you believe) slipping it in as fact where it was clearly not a fact blurs the new/analysis/opinion line and we (the consumers) need to be vigilant about this. Or we get idiots elected to the fricking presidency.

      I do not discount the role trust plays in all of this.

      1. In any event…?

        Shoot! I wrote the post a few weeks ago, and I tried to complete it, but clearly didn’t do a good job! At this point, I’m not entirely sure what I was going to say next. I could probably figure it out, but I prefer responding to your other points.

        I think you and he are both skimming over part of the process: trust is not simply something to be given. Trust itself is based partially on intellectual capacity, critical thinking, and effort.

        I think the key word here is “partially.” And I agree that trust does depend on, to some degree, scrutiny of the source. But I also think social factors–e.g., the reputation of the source, the extent to which the source belongs to one’s political and social tribe–play a big role–likely a bigger role. Before exploring why this might be, I wonder if you would agree with that.

        And if my more conservative friends don’t trust Chuck Todd, that’s okay too. I hope the people they trust are as clear about facts and analysis as I think Chuck Todd is.

        That last bit is crucial. I would be fine if people of different political persuasions have different sources of information and news if this resulted in an agreement about the key facts from all these groups

        Your last paragraph is sound, but I think you misunderstand my position. I want the press simply to present the facts in a news story.

        I think making the distinction between wanting opinions out of news stories, relegating them to op-eds and analysis is valid one. But I think that’s a separate issue from what Hayes and Roberts is talking about. The issue is the extent to which a person’s knowledge is based on social factors, like the sources of information one trusts, versus the intellectual scrutiny and analysis that one makes. Just giving people facts isn’t the way people discover what is true. I would add that simply providing facts won’t lead to better understanding of an issue as well. I think this is what they’re talking about.

        You and I have disagreed about this for going on twenty years. When reporters (that is, newswriters) let certain words slip into news articles — words like “surprisingly” — they’re letting their bias seep into the facts, and the facts should be without bias

        But you say this as if preventing bias or subjectivity is possible—I don’t think it is. (If you disagree, the next time you find an example of this, let me know.) From the decisions about word choice to the information to include or exclude, to emphasize or ignore—these decisions aren’t objective or factual. For example, you object to the use of the word “surprisingly” in news pieces. But aren’t the stories journalists cover, and the degree to which they emphasize them, functions of the journalists’ ideas about what is important, novel, interesting, and even surprising. What’s the difference?

        Yet there was no on-air correction. I was furious. Do you see why? Stirring up rumors about which incumbent is running or not running is opinion. It can even be analysis. But slyly (or carelessly, depending on who you believe) slipping it in as fact where it was clearly not a fact blurs the new/analysis/opinion line and we (the consumers) need to be vigilant about this.

        I see this, and I think this is valid. What is not clear to me is why this problem is worse than others—such as misleading headlines (that are factually correct), leaving out important contextual information, he said/she said journalism, difficulty with finding trusted sources of information. To me, these things lead to more confusion and misunderstanding than bias creeping into the news.

        I do not discount the role trust plays in all of this.

        How big of a role does it play in your opinion?

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